BUENOS AIRES Argentina has become the first Latin American country to let gay couples marry and adopt children, defying Catholic opposition to join the ranks of a few mostly European nations with similar laws.
Argentina's Senate passed a gay marriage law early on Thursday following more than 14 hours of charged debate, as hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside the Congress in near-freezing temperatures. Senators voted 33-27 for the proposal, with three abstentions.
"We're now a fairer, more democratic society. This is something we should all celebrate," Maria Rachid, a leading gay rights activist, said as supporters of the law hugged each other and jumped up and down after the vote.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez supports gay marriage on human rights grounds and is expected to sign the law after her return from a state visit to China. The proposal cleared Argentina's lower house in May.
Fernandez told state news agency Telam the law was a "positive step that defends minority rights."
A nominally Roman Catholic country, Argentina is now at the vanguard of gay rights in the region.
Church leaders had campaigned against the measure, rallying tens of thousands of opponents, from children to elderly nuns, in a demonstration outside Congress on Tuesday.
But opinion polls show most Argentines support gay marriage.
"Just like with divorce, women's right to vote and civil marriage, with the passage of time we'll be able to appreciate the benefits of this law," Senator Eugenio Artaza told local television.
The Argentine president's backing for the bill has pitted her against the Catholic Church a year before a presidential election.
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, had raised particular concern about the adoption clause of the bill, saying it was important to ensure that children had as role models "both a father and a mother."
Pundits have said Fernandez's stance was meant to help bolster her party's leftist credentials. Nestor Kirchner, Fernandez's predecessor and husband, is widely expected to run again for the presidency in October 2011.
Only a small number of countries permit same-sex marriage, including the Netherlands, Sweden, Portugal and Canada. In the United States, homosexual couples can marry in five states and in the capital, Washington.
Same-sex couples in Mexico City won the same rights as heterosexuals to marry and adopt children in December, under a law passed by city legislators. Uruguay allows same-sex couples to adopt children but not to marry.
Argentina's cosmopolitan capital, Buenos Aires, is known as a "gay friendly" tourist destination.