MOSCOW Russian lawmakers passed a bill on Friday barring same-sex foreign couples from adopting Russian children, heeding strong signals of support from President Vladimir Putin and broadening a rift with Western nations over gay rights.
The State Duma, or lower house of parliament, approved the bill by a 444-0 vote in its third and final reading, sending it to the upper chamber, which is also expected to approve it.
Both houses are dominated by the United Russia party, which is loyal to Putin.
In power since 2000, Putin has championed socially conservative values and held up the Russian Orthodox Church as a moral compass since he weathered a wave of protests by mostly urban liberals and started a third Kremlin term last year.
He has rejected U.S. and European criticism of a ban on spreading gay "propaganda" among minors that the Duma passed earlier this month that gay rights activists fear has fuelled attacks on homosexuals.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement on Thursday that the "propaganda" ban could stigmatize gays and cause discrimination, and the United States has said it severely restricts freedom of expression and assembly.
The Duma vote to ban adoptions by same-sex couples from abroad came as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has criticized Putin over civil rights, met him at a showcase Russian economic forum in St Petersburg.
Germany has also condemned the gay "propaganda" ban and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who is gay, said after its passage that attempts to stigmatize same-sex relationships had no place in a democracy.
"WAVE OF HOMOPHOBIA"
Putin says Russia does not discriminate against gays, but he has criticized them for not adding to Russia's population, which has declined sharply since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.
The same-sex adoption ban was rushed through parliament after Putin said in late April that a new French law allowing same-sex marriage went against traditional Russian values.
It also bars adoptions by unmarried foreigners from countries where same-sex marriage is legal.
The ban fits into a Kremlin campaign to restrict foreign adoptions, a sensitive issue after Americans and Europeans flooded into Russia in the post-Soviet era to adopt children.
In December, Putin signed a law banning all adoptions by Americans, a move motivated by disputes with Washington over human rights and what Russia says is the insufficient prosecution of adoptive U.S. parents suspected of abuse.
Advocates of adoption say same-sex couples can provide loving homes for children who might otherwise founder in Russia's troubled system of orphanages. Relatively few Russian couples adopt despite state efforts to promote the practice.
Same-sex marriage is legal in 15 countries, including seven in Western Europe, and in some jurisdictions in the United States and Mexico. Same-sex couples are not recognized under Russian law and cannot adopt.
A March poll by the independent Levada Centre found that 85 percent of Russians opposed same-sex marriage. But there is no big grassroots movement against gay rights in Russia and critics say the measures are being imposed from the top down.
"It's pretty strange to see this major wave of homophobia in a country where two-thirds of society was brought up by same-sex couples - mother and grandmother," one Internet user said in an online forum, referring to the problem of absentee fathers.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Gareth Jones)