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Gay marriage tops Socialist agenda

Newsday  December 19, 2004


Other overhauls being pushed by new government include increasing the rights of women, immigrants

MADRID -- Javier Garcia is going to get married. It hasn't been easy, but not for the usual reasons of picking the right day or finding a venue. Garcia is gay, and in Spain, it is illegal for homosexuals to marry. But that will almost certainly change - possibly as soon as next month.

Surprisingly, for this historically conservative Catholic country, the change will be government-created. Since being swept into office after the March 11 train bombings, Spain's newly elected Socialist government is pushing through an ambitious social reform agenda that will put the country on par with the most liberal countries in Europe and, on many issues, well left of the United States. The terror attack, widely interpreted here as a result of the previous government's support of the Bush administration's war on Iraq, gave the Socialists a broad mandate for change. The Socialists pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq almost immediately and now have moved Spanish foreign policy in line with most of the rest of Europe. But the most dramatic change is happening domestically, with the Socialists pushing through a new slate of laws designed to increase the rights of women, immigrants and homosexuals and to lessen the influence of the church in public life.

Gay marriage a priority

The issue at the top of the government's agenda now is ending restrictions on gays and lesbians to marry and adopt children. Other new initiatives include increased protections for battered women, abolition of restrictive abortion laws and an end to mandatory religious education in public schools.

Most recently, the government announced it would grant residency and work permits to undocumented immigrants who have worked in Spain for more than six months - which by some estimates will legalize more than 400,000 people.

Spain has evolved in fits and starts since the death of Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975, said Fernando Vallespín, president of the Center for Sociological Research, a publicly funded think tank. Now, he says, "the country has changed completely from quite a traditional society to quite a liberal society." With the changes, he says, "the government is ahead of the society. It is trying to introduce an example that says, 'This is how we want the society to be.'"

Strong support for women

President JoséLuis Rodríguez Zapatero, who describes himself as a feminist, has appointed women to half his cabinet posts and the Socialists say they want to pass a law requiring that at least 50 percent of the candidates on an electoral slate are female. The government is even overturning a long-standing prohibition against women in the Spanish monarchy being allowed to ascend to the throne.

The reform agenda appears to have strong public support. Although the Socialists do not hold a majority in Parliament, most of the laws are expected to pass because of support from other left-leaning parties. According to a June poll with a 2 percentage point margin of error by the Center for Sociological Research, two thirds of the public support gay marriage and half support gay adoption.

The new government marked its first success in October with the passage of a comprehensive law to combat violence against women. The legislation not only increases the penalties for domestic violence, but makes it easier to divorce, gives more money to shelters, provides specialized training for judges, police, doctors and psychologists and funds a public education campaign in the media and the schools. Domestic violence in Spain has reached crisis levels in recent years, with more than 2 million women affected, according to Amnesty International. And, it said, an estimated 97 percent do not complain to the authorities. In the first six months of this year, more than 50 women were slain by their spouses or boyfriends. After some initial bickering, the law passed Parliament with a resounding majority.

Church opposition expected

The gay marriage issue is shaping up to face a far more contentious fight.

The Church has called legalizing gay marriage equivalent to unleashing a "virus" in Spain. "The Church thinks this is not good for society," said JoséMaría Calderón, a spokesman for the Conference of Spanish Bishops, the national body of the Church. "This leads us to destroy the concept of marriage."

Legalizing gay marriage is like distributing "counterfeit money," he said, and he disputes the idea that the Church is engaged in a struggle for legitimacy in the new, liberal Spain.

"The Church doesn't feel that there are forces or persons against us," Calderón said. At the same time, "In Spain there is a strange phenomenon. The political left has a characteristic of being anti-clerical, against the Church." He declined to comment specifically on the Church's current relationship with the government, citing political sensitivity.

"It's a minefield," he said.

Calderón said there is a movement to collect half a million signatures to force a referendum in Parliament to ban gay marriage. He said the Church supports the initiative but is not actively backing it.

Garcia, 40, a government official in Malaga, said he and his partner, Mario Almeida, are Catholics, and Garcia taught religion to children for eight years under Church sponsorship.

"When a bishop says something homophobic, I am sad because most Christians think homosexuals should be able to be get married," said Garcia, who is also the spokesman for a group of Catholic gays and lesbians that has been trying to build a dialogue with the Church.

There are currently 250,000 gay and lesbian couples waiting to get married in Spain, says Jordi Pedret, a Socialist member of Parliament on the Justice Committee.

While the Church had a strong ally in the Popular Party, which held power for eight years, it is relatively weak in the face of the Socialists and is not expected to be able to stop the legislative overhauls. Still, the Church continues to receive a sizable amount of cash from the state, about $150 million a year, a remnant of its alliance with Franco. For now, that government contribution will continue, although in a sign of its weakening power, the Socialists have announced the government will give money to other religions, including Islam.

The Church also suffered a blow when the Socialists announced they would end mandatory Catholic education in the schools, and would offer classes in Islam and Judaism.

"This is the first time that the government can make laws without the influence of the Church," said Juan José Tamayo, director of the theology program at the Carlos III University. Tamayo, along with 34 other theologians, recently caused a stir by signing an open letter endorsing the proposed changes. "It's a historic moment," he said.

The influence of the Church on Spanish private life has lessened considerably since the late 1970s, said Gerardo Meil, a sociologist at the Autonomous University of Madrid. "People don't accept the legitimacy of the Church to regulate private life - sexuality, marriage, divorce, contraception and so on." The same-sex marriage law would put Spain on par with Belgium and the Netherlands, the only other European countries to have legalized homosexual unions so far.

All Material Copyright Samuel Lowenberg