BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina's lower house passed on Wednesday a gay marriage bill that, if also approved by senators, will put the South American country among a handful in the world that allow homosexual couples to marry.
Small groups of gay rights supporters and opponents of the marriage bill gathered outside Congress where deputies approved the measure with 125 votes in favour and 109 against after 12 hours of heated debate.
"Love isn't owned by heterosexuals," said Deputy Felipe Sola, who backed the bill. "If we're all equal before the law, why do we want to give a different name to unions between same-sex couples?"
The bill permits gay couples to adopt children for the first time, one of its most controversial provisions.
If the law is passed in the upper house, Argentina would be the first country in predominantly Roman Catholic Latin America to allow same-sex marriages. Neighbouring Uruguay grants extensive rights, including adoptions, to gay couples in civil unions but does not allow them to marry.
Mexico City is the only other place in Latin America where gays have the same marriage and adoption rights as heterosexual couples.
With regard to the bill's chances of passing the Senate, Maria Rachid, president of the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals, told Reuters on Tuesday: "We've talked to the heads of the political blocs (in the Senate) and the majority are in favour of this, so we think we could get a favourable vote in the Senate as well."
Catholic Church leaders in the region have described gay marriage as "perverse" and immoral, but the marriage bill has not sparked much public controversy in Argentina.
Argentina's cosmopolitan capital, Buenos Aires, is known among foreign tourists as being gay friendly, with some bars, hotels and shops catering to that clientele.
Five gay Argentine couples have already gotten married in recent months after local judges authorized the ceremonies.
In Congress, the different parties and factions gave their members freedom to vote how they wanted on the marriage bill.
Deputies from President Cristina Fernandez's faction and a diverse range of opposition groups, from the rightist PRO to the leftist Civic Coalition and the centrist Radical Civic Union all supported the bill.
Among the small number of countries in the world that permit gay marriage are the Netherlands, Sweden, Portugal and Canada. In the United States, gay couples can get married in five states and in Washington, D.C., although most states have bans in effect.
(Additional reporting and writing by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Eric Beech)