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Netherlands okays same-sex marriages

With a lopsided vote in Parliament and a burst of cheers from the packed gallery, the Netherlands Tuesday became the first country to allow same-sex couples to marry on the same terms as men and women.

The 109-33 vote marked the latest instance of the Dutch breaking barriers in social policy, joining liberal drug laws, legal prostitution and sanctioned euthanasia. It seemed certain to add to the Netherlands' reputation in Europe and beyond for laws that many hail as signs of tolerance and others decry as laxity.

The vote was not unexpected, since the measure had attracted the support of all the parties in the governing coalition and even some members of the conservative opposition. But that hardly detracted from the historic significance of the measure or the emotional impact for gay and lesbian couples fighting for the right to legally wed.

The same-sex marriage law still must be approved by the upper house. But that is considered a formality because that chamber cannot make amendments and has voiced no opposition. It will then be signed by the queen and will become law in January, a Dutch official said.

Advocates of same-sex marriage in the United States expressed hope the Dutch vote will spur moves toward similar measures in America's state capitals. In the meantime, it could send some American homosexual couples to the Netherlands to marry, they said. Getting those marriages recognized in the United States could become the next legal challenge.

As things now stand in theUnited States, only Vermont has gone as far as to recognize "civil unions" between same-sex couples.

The Dutch vote came with a wide political consensus largely because the issue had been fully debated over the years, with registered same-sex partnerships being recognized since January 1998. In June of last year, the Dutch Cabinet first approved the bills opening up marriage and adoption to gay couples.

But the debate was not unanimous, and some conservative religious institutions have kept silence on the issue.

And there will still be restrictions.

For example, gay and lesbian couples will be able to adopt Dutch children, but not children from abroad.

The Netherlands, like France and Scandinavian countries, had already allowed same-sex couples to form a legal partnership and had given them many of the same rights as other married couples, such as inheritance rights and pension benefits.

The law enacted Tuesday, however, goes much further, basically allowing same-sex couples to have the same marriage ceremonies as others and the same divorce proceedings _ eliminating in a stroke the distinction in marriage heterosexual and homosexual.