Argentina on Thursday became the first nation in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage, turning aside protests from the Roman Catholic Church to give gay couples the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts.
The Argentine Senate approved the measure in a hard-fought 33-27 vote, with three abstentions. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has indicated that she will sign it into law quickly.
The 4:05 a.m. vote came after an exhaustive debate that dragged on for more than 14 hours. Hundreds of supporters of the law, waiting outside Congress in freezing temperatures, erupted in cheers and tears of joy when news of the vote reached them.
"This was already a victory because there was no one in Argentina who wasn't following this debate," said Emelina Alonso, a human rights lawyer who joined the crowd to support the law. "Human rights and international law oblige us to protect [same-sex] marriage — so it is in Argentina and soon, surely, in other countries in the region."
The law makes Argentina one of the most liberal countries in the world when it comes to gay rights, despite fierce opposition from the still-powerful Roman Catholic Church as well as Christian evangelical groups.
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, led the opposition, saying that allowing gays and lesbians to marry posed a threat to what he called the "natural" family formed by a man and woman. He said children deserved traditional role models of a father and mother.
Opponents staged a huge rally earlier in the week, with about 60,000 people marching to Congress.
The law allows same-sex couples to marry, adopt children and inherit property, among other rights and protections.
In Latin America, only Mexico City has legalized gay marriage. It is legal in Canada and a handful of European nations, including Portugal and Spain. Same-sex civil unions are legal in Uruguay and some states in Brazil and Mexico.
In the U.S., gays can marry in five states and in Washington, D.C.
The debate in Argentina at times took a harsh tone. Fernandez, the president, who said she favored the law on human rights grounds, criticized opponents who used language that she said evoked the Inquisition and the Crusades.
Passage of the law in Argentina was all the more remarkable because the country, outside cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, remains relatively conservative.
"This is encouraging not just for our couples," said Cesar Cigliutti, president of the Argentine Homosexual Community, "but also because it is Argentine society valuing diversity."
Special correspondent D'Alessandro reported from Buenos Aires and Times staff writer Wilkinson from Mexico City.