MADRID -- Spain's parliament gave initial approval yesterday to a measure that would legalize gay marriage in a move likely to rekindle conflict with a Catholic Church that has just elected a new conservative pope.
A packed public gallery erupted in cheers and applause as the speaker announced approval of the Socialist government's proposal that would make Spain the third European country to legalize gay marriage.
''It's unfair to be a second-class citizen because of love," Socialist legislator Carmen Monton said. ''Spain joins the vanguard of those defending full equality for gays and lesbians."
The proposal, part of a raft of liberal social legislation by the government, has outraged Spain's Catholic Church and is unlikely to please Pope Benedict XVI, elected on Tuesday.
The pope, formerly the Vatican's top doctrinal guardian, has said same-sex unions are destroying the concept of marriage and eroding Europe's social identity.
The bill, passed 183 to 136, still needs Senate approval and a final reading in the lower house, but it is widely expected to become law.
However, Spain's top judicial authority has said in a non-binding ruling that gay marriage is unconstitutional, which could encourage a legal challenge.
Only the conservative opposition Popular Party and a Christian Democrat party from Catalonia opposed the bill.
Popular Party spokesman Eduardo Zaplana said his party favored equal rights and gay unions for homosexuals. ''But it's quite another thing that an ancient institution like marriage, that is fundamental for the organization of society, has to be exactly the same [for homosexuals]," he said.
Dozens of activists gathered outside congress to celebrate.
''It's an indescribable emotion," Antonio Poveda, an activist for gay rights group Lambda, said. ''I'm going to get married for the sake of activism, for love, and for a question of dignity."
Spain's bishops said in a statement after the vote that legalizing gay marriage was ''damaging to the common good" and threatened social order.
The bill would give same-sex unions the same status as heterosexual ones, including inheritance rights, pensions, and the adoption of children. By a crushing margin, the lower house also approved a bill making divorce quicker and easier and allowing divorced parents to share children's custody.
Senior church officials have criticized Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's liberal agenda, which also includes easing abortion restrictions and permitting stem cell research, but the moves are popular among young Spaniards, fewer than a fifth of whom are practicing Catholics.
Zapatero, who insists relations with the church are good, said yesterday he would respect Pope Benedict's views. ''If the new pope says something, I'm prepared to respect what he says," he told a news conference.