BRASILIA Brazil's Federal Supreme Court on Thursday legally recognized homosexual partnerships in a landmark case for gay rights in a country with the world's largest population of Roman Catholics.
Justices at the STF, as the country's top court is known, voted 10 to zero in favor of gay partnerships, setting a legal precedent in Latin America's largest country. One justice, Jose Antonio Dias Toffoli, refrained from voting, saying he had dealt previously with related cases.
The decision grants gay couples most of the rights enjoyed by heterosexual partners, including pension benefits, inheritance and, some lawyers say, possibly the right to adopt children. Lower courts had ruled both in favor of and against partnerships, which are not governed by a specific law.
"The freedom to pursue one's own sexuality is part of an individual's freedom of expression," said Justice Carlos Ayres Britto, the author of the ruling.
The ruling makes Brazil the second South American nation after Argentina to allow gay partnerships. The majority of judges argued that the Constitution did not explicitly rule out gay partnerships and that these were an expression of the right to privacy and equality before the law.
Gay activists celebrated the decision, saying the ruling shows the state is willing to defend the rights of citizens regardless of their sexual and race condition.
"The degree of civilization of a country can be measured by the way people in a nation treat their homosexual community," newspaper O Globo's website cited Claudio Nascimento, head of Rio de Janeiro state's Gay, Lesbian and Transsexuals Committee, as saying. "It's a historic day for Brazil."
Brazil's Roman Catholic Church had argued against the decision, saying the only union the Constitution referred to was that between a man and a woman.
"Plurality has its limits," Hugo Jose de Oliveira, a lawyer representing the Brazilian National Bishops Conference, or CNBB, told the court. Church leaders said they would not budge from their position as a result of ruling.
About 140 million of Brazil's 190 million population in 2008 were Roman Catholic.
The case was brought to the court by the government of Rio de Janeiro state and by federal public prosecutors.
Most major cities in Brazil have an active and open gay community, and Sao Paulo every year hosts the world's largest gay parade, with about 3 million people attending.
Despite that, the country has struggled with recent episodes of violence against the gay community -- including harassment and beatings at central points in Sao Paulo. In rural areas and even in the nation's capital, Brasilia, gays are often ridiculed and harassed.
(Reporting by Raymond Colitt; Editing by Guillermo Parra-Bernal and Todd Eastham)