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Brazil becomes largest nation yet to legalize civil unions

Brazil on Thursday became the sixth country in Latin America, in addition to Mexico City, to extend rights to gay and lesbian couples but stopped short of legalizing gay marriage.

By Taylor BarnesCorrespondent / May 6, 2011

Gay-rights proponents in São Paulo celebrate the Brazilian Supreme Court's unanimous devision to recognize same-sex unions Thursday.

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Rio de Janeiro

Rebuffing Latin America's machista stereotype, Brazil on Thursday legalized same-sex unions nationwide. The decision makes it the largest among a league of about 25 nations that recognizes civil unions for gay couples.

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Brazil’s Supreme Court voted 10-0 to recognize the unions, which will allow gay couples here to share in each other's inheritances, pensions, and health plans, and a legal route to divide belongings after a separation.

Gay rights activists celebrated the move as an important milestone that could resonate regionally, since Brazil itself was influenced by the debate following Argentina’s 2010 legalization of gay marriage, says Marinalva Santana, a spokeswoman for the Brazilian League of Lesbians.

“The movement has been very strong,” says Ms. Santana, who is also a member of the National Council on LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) Rights. “The society itself in Brazil despite being very religious ... has processed this debate in a very positive way, and the media has had a good role.”

Civil unions are also legal in Colombia and Uruguay. Costa Rica and Venezuela recognize a lesser form of same-sex partnership registration, while regionally only Argentina and Mexico City allow gay marriage (the Mexico Supreme Court has ruled that these couples must be respected countrywide), according to Lambda Legal, a gay and lesbian rights group.

The Roman Catholic Church, which remains influential here and around Latin America, opposes measures allowing same-sex unions. Brazil’s nearly 200 million population earns it the moniker of the “world’s largest Catholic nation,” with at least 60,000 gay and lesbian couples among them, according to the country's 2010 census.

Brazil is moving beyond patriarchy, said Supreme Federal Tribunal Justice Ricardo Lewandowski after casting his vote. Nontraditional relationships are "emerging among us, beside the traditional patriarchal family,” Mr. Lewandowski said.

Other judges cited the decision’s ability to reduce violence against gays and the Constitution’s strong statements on equality and against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Grupo Gay da Bahia said in a recent report that 260 gays were murdered in 2010 in Brazil, up 113 percent from five years ago, including recent high-profile cases that made headlines, according to the Associated Press.

Many religious leaders disapproved of the decision, but others expressed a measure of acceptance and satisfaction that the ruling stopped short of legalizing gay marriage, which is only allowed regionally in Argentina and Mexico City.

“Civil union is one thing, marriage is another,” the Rio de Janeiro bishop Dom Edney Gouvêa Mattoso told the Rio daily O Globo. “This union can’t be called a marriage.”

The archbishop of Rio de Janeiro Dom Orani Tempesta similarly told O Globo that the church has a stake in guaranteeing civil rights to all.

“The CNBB [National Conference of Brazilian Bishops], like all the church in Brazil and in the world, wants to preserve the rights of all, the well-being of all, the dignity of all. … These are financial issues, they’re working together, building together, but this is not a family.”

Ms. Santana says that the task ahead now is for couples to take the decision and put it into practice. “Certainly it's going to foster, give incentive for more couples to look for their rights.”

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