ROME Thousands of Italians took to the streets on Saturday in support of gay civil unions as the battle over legal recognition for homosexual couples heats up ahead of a bill to be debated in parliament.
"Wake up Italy, it's time to be civilized," was the slogan chosen for rallies in almost 100 towns and cities in the only major country in the West not to give same-sex couples any legal recognition or protection on issues from pensions to parenthood.
"In Italy people think that there are those who are allowed to have rights and those who aren't," said Liliana Rizzo, a member of a gay parents' association, at a rally outside the Pantheon in central Rome.
"We don't want to take anything away from the traditional families ...but our families also exist, our children exist and our children need to have both of their parents recognized."
The European Court of Human Rights has condemned Italy for failing to introduce a law on civil unions, but with the influence of the Catholic Church seen as a strong brake, legislation has been held up by politicians of all stripes.
On Thursday the floor of the Senate will begin debate on a bill that would legalize civil partnership for homosexuals as well as unmarried heterosexual couples. Many opponents see the bill as a Trojan horse that would lead to the legalization of gay marriage.
With the country divided on the issue, on Jan. 30 opponents of the bill will gather in Rome for a demonstration dubbed "Family Day" which is expected to draw tens or even hundreds of thousands of people.
"Finally there is a cultural debate and the whole country is discussing an issue that was previously taboo," said senator Monica Cirinna, the author of the bill, which has already attracted more than 6,000 proposed amendments.
At Saturday's rallies, from Milan in the north to Palermo in the south, supporters of civil unions carried rainbow-colored flags, balloons and alarm clocks to show it was time for Italy to "wake up" to the need for a law on civil unions.
Pope Francis stepped into the debate on Friday, saying "there can be no confusion between the family God wants and any other type of union". [nL8N1563BD]
Italy's political parties are internally divided over the Cirinna bill, and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is allowing members of his Democratic Party (PD) to vote according to their consciences.
Few government representatives turned out at Saturday's rallies, but Agriculture Minister Maurizio Martina, a PD member who marched in Milan, said he wanted to show his support for "a battle for dignity."
"This law on civil unions needs approving now," he said. "We are the only European country not to have one, and there is no more time to be lost."
Opponents of the bill are particularly incensed by a clause that would, under very limited circumstances, allow homosexuals to adopt children that their partners had from previous heterosexual unions.
Some fear so-called "stepchild adoption" would open the way to loosening laws on surrogate motherhood, which is illegal in Italy. Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, leader of a small center-right party, has called for those using surrogate mothers to be sent to prison.
(Writing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Hugh Lawson)