COPENHAGEN Denmark passed legislation that permits homosexual couples to be married in full church ceremonies, not just via the brief blessings or civil registration of partnerships allowed earlier.
The move underscored a tradition of tolerance in a Nordic society that prides itself on egalitarianism.
Other Scandinavian countries were forerunners in legalizing homosexual marriage while it remains controversial in the United States, where President Barack Obama has taken a political risk by adding it to his platform for re-election in November.
The law passed by the Danish parliament on Thursday by a vote of 85-24 will take effect on June 15 and give gay couples exactly the same rights to be married as heterosexual couples.
"I am very glad that a broad majority could be gathered to give homosexuals the same opportunity as all others to celebrate their love with marriage in church as well as in city hall," Gender Equality and Ecclesiastical Affairs Minister Manu Sareen said in a statement.
"We have taken a big step for equality in Denmark - and for love."
Sareen said the legal amendment was the culmination of a long process. "We've been discussing the right of homosexuals to be wed in church for many years."
Priests will still be able to exercise discretion on whether or not they will wed homosexuals.
Views of the legislation within the mainstream Evangelical Lutheran Church, to which about 80 percent of Danes belong, have been mixed. Polls suggest that between one-third and half of its priests are not willing to marry homosexuals.
The new law permits homosexual marriages in the Evangelical Lutheran Church as well as churches of other faiths, depending on those churches' own rules.
"The legal effects of homosexual marriages are the same as they have been so far for registered partnerships," said Jorgen Engmark, a spokesman for the church ministry.
In Denmark, registered partnership gives the same legal rights as marriage, for instance, concerning inheritance of a spouse's estate. The main difference is that a registered partnership can be made only at a city hall, whereas homosexual marriages from mid-June can be performed in church.
"I have fought in the front lines on this for many years, and for me, yesterday was a historic day," Stig Elling, a businessman and long-time advocate of gay rights, told Reuters.
Elling has already made plans for next week. "My partner through 27 years, Steen, and I celebrated with a good dinner and champagne yesterday," he said. "On Friday, when the law takes effect, Steen and I will go to church and get married."
In 1989 Denmark became the first country to allow so-called registered partnerships between people of the same sex. Since 1997 same-sex couples have also been able to receive a blessing in church.
Same-sex marriages were previously introduced in some other countries including Sweden, Norway, Argentina, Canada and South Africa. In Belgium, Holland, Spain, and Portugal homosexual couples can be wed at city hall.
Same-sex marriages are recognized by a few states in the United States, though not by the federal government. But polls show growing acceptance of same-sex nuptials and Obama has turned gay marriage into a 2012 election issue, saying he believes same-sex couples should be able to wed. His conservative Republican opponent Mitt Romney disagrees.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)