PORTUGAL’S PRIME MINISTER:

JANUARY 8 2010 15:14h

Gay marriage fundamental to equality

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Portugal's Prime Minister Jose Socrates delivered a passionate defence of plans to legalise gay marriage Friday.

LISBON, January 8, 2010 (AFP) - Portugal's Prime Minister Jose Socrates delivered a passionate defence of plans to legalise gay marriage Friday, saying it was fundamental to the concepts of equality and justice.

Speaking ahead of a first reading vote in parliament on the proposed legislation, the Socialist premier said homosexuals had suffered decades of discrimination in Catholic Portugal, traditionally been one of the most conservative countries in Europe.

"This law is designed to redress the decades of injustice that have been perpetrated against homosexuals," added Socrates, recalling that up until 1982, "Portugal was in the absurd and revolting situation in which homosexuality was a crime punishable by law."

"This law is one for all of us, a law which represents a victory for liberty, for justice, for equality and humanity," he added.

The legislation on gay marriage is widely expected to be approved by parliament where Socrates' party and other left-wing factions have a clear majority.

However a proposal from other parts of the left-wing bloc to allow same sex couples to adopt, which is also being debated on Friday, is seen as unlikely to be voted onto the statute book.

Socrates defended the decision not to put the gay marriage bill to a referendum, saying the plan was contained in his party's manifesto for last September's election. The same did not apply to the adoption bill, he added.

"The mandate that we received from the Portuguese people concerned the issue of marriage between people of the same sex, nothing more and nothing less," he said.

"This issue of adoption is different as it does not just involve adults who are free to give their consent."

In contrast to Spain, where the lead-up to the legalisation of gay marriage in 2005 brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators onto the streets, the bill in Portugal has provoked only muted opposition even from the right.

While normally vocal on the role of marriage and the family in society, the Catholic Church has refused to mobilise on a subject which, according to Lisbon's Cardinal Patriarch Jose Policarpo, is "parliament's responsibility".