The lower house of the Spanish Parliament approved the Socialist government's gay marriage bill Thursday, a major step toward making Spain the third European country to legalize same-sex marriages.
The bill, which will also pave the way for gay couples to adopt children, garnered 183 votes in favor, 136 against and six abstentions in the 350-seat chamber.
It will now go to the Senate — where the Socialists have ample support — for final approval in the coming weeks. Belgium and the Netherlands are the only two other European countries that have legalized gay marriages.
Representatives of gay and lesbian groups cheered and applauded from the chamber's public gallery when the vote result was read out.
"This is a great and historic day because never before has such a small legal reform made such an important improvement in rights and in favor of freedom and equality", said Pedro Zerolo, a leader of Spain's homosexual rights group.
Groups for and against the measure gathered outside the parliament building awaiting the outcome.
In the vote, deputies agreed that the phrase "Matrimony shall have the same requisites and effects regardless of whether the persons involved are of the same or different sex" should be incorporated into Spain's Civil Law.
The measure has been fiercely opposed by Spain's Roman Catholic church and the conservative opposition Popular Party, whose deputies formed the bulk of the opposing vote Thursday.
The Spanish Bishops Conference issued a statement calling the bill approval "an error," saying it "went against the common good." It added that it was "unfair that real marriage should be treated the same as the union of persons of the same sex."
Last year, the conference's spokesman Antonio Martinez Camino said allowing gay marriage was like "imposing a virus on society, something false that will have negative consequences for social life."
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialists proposed the bill last October, seven months after winning general elections that ended an eight-year stint in office for the Popular Party.
At a press conference before the vote, Zapatero was asked how he feltmight greet the news.
"If the new pope wants to say something about it, I'm prepared to respect whatever he says, he can count on my respect for him," said Zapatero.
"One of the guarantees of democracy is the freedom of religion, freedom of opinion and freedom to carry out a political project with the citizens' vote," he added.
Nearly all Spaniards — 94 percent — are Roman Catholic, compared to 75 percent in Belgium and just 31 percent in The Netherlands.
In an opinion poll on the issue carried out by the government-run Center for Sociological Investigations last June, 66 percent of Spaniards favored legalizing gay marriage, while 26 percent opposed.
In a separate vote Thursday, the lower house also approved the government's proposed fast-track, no-fault divorce law, which scraps the trial period of separation and lets people file directly for divorce three months after getting married.
The measure, which must also go to the Senate, was approved by 192 votes in favor, 127 abstentions and five against.
Under the existing law a man or woman filing for divorce had to state a reason to the judge, such as infidelity. The new bill says either can simply request a divorce — no questions asked — and the judge has to grant it.
Government figures show that 60 percent of Spanish marriages fail, ending either in separation or divorce.