An Argentine judge paved the way for gay marriage when she granted a homosexual couple permission to marry in a first for Latin America, the world's biggest Catholic region.
Buenos Aires, known for its active if low-key gay movement, became the region's first city to approve civil unions for gay couples in 2002. It was followed by Villa Carlos Paz in the north and the southern province of Rio Negro.
Those civil unions grant gay couples some, but not all, the rights enjoyed by heterosexual married couples.
The court ruled that two articles in the city's civil code that say only people of different sexes can get married are illegal. The court decision applies only to Buenos Aires. Same-sex unions in most of the rest of Argentina remain illegal.
Friday's ruling by Judge Gabriela Seijas ordered the civil registry to make official the marriage of Alejandro Freyre, 39, and Jose Maria Di Bello, 41, who had been denied their request because they were both men. The couple had filed a discrimination complaint in April.
"The law should treat each person with equal respect in relation to each person's singularities without the need to understand or regulate them," the judge said in her ruling.
The city code prevents people from "enjoying the rights that couples who enter into matrimony are entitled to," she said. Those rights include inheritances, pensions and the ability to make decisions for the other person when he or she is incapacitated.
It could increase pressure for lawmakers to take up a stalled gay marriage bill in Congress.
"We are very happy, moved, but we also feel the heavy weight of responsibility because it's not just about us, it's encouraging legal equality in Argentina and the rest of Latin America," Di Bello told reporters.
In the rest of Latin America, Mexico City, the Mexican state of Coahuila and the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul also allow civil unions for same-sex couples.
Uruguay became the first country in the region in late 2007 to legalize civil unions for gays. In January 2009, the Colombian Constitutional Court recognized a series of rights for homosexual couples, including social welfare rights.
But no Latin American country authorizes marriage between gays.
"The law must treat everyone with the same respect according to their particular situation" and declared unconstitutional two articles of the civil code, including one stating that marriage is only between a man and a woman, Seijas ruled.
"All you have to do is change the words 'man' and 'woman' with the word 'party,'" said Di Bello, who along with his partner is HIV-positive.
The Catholic church is especially powerful in Argentina, a country whose population is 91 percent Catholic.
Bishop Baldemoro Martini charged that, "same-sex unions do not contribute to the public good; they put it especially at risk."
The landmark decision could still be struck down if there is an appeal.
But Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, a conservative, said the government would make no such move, pledging that his government will NOT appeal the court decision.
Macri called the ruling a "very important step," adding that "we have to live together and accept reality...The world is headed in that direction."
His decision was not easy, Macri said. Many people had urged him to appeal.
"I had an important internal debate, weighing my upbringing with my search for the best customs and best liberties for society," he said in a videotaped message on his Facebook page.
"What we have to learn is to live in liberty without violating the rights of others," he said.
Macri likened the current debate over same-sex marriage to a similar discourse years ago.
"It's the same as happened with divorce several decades ago – a very intense debate. And today it is something very natural," the mayor said.
Judge Seijas issued the ruling Wednesday but it did not become public knowledge until Thursday, when it was posted on the court's Web site.
Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay are also addressing the issue of same-sex civil unions.
Several homosexual groups hailed the judge's ruling.
"I am very happy and I join the feeling of Argentine gays, who were repressed for many years," said Marcelo Cerqueira, president of Gay de Bahia, one of the most active gay rights groups in Latin American giant Brazil.
"For us in Brazil, we have no expectations, neither in court, nor in the medium or long term."
The decision by Seijas "is incredibly courageous, we didn't expect it," acknowledged Di Bello, who fell into his partner's arms when he learned of the verdict.
I find it so very impressive that in a region that is so ultra religious and quite conservative, doing the right thing has won out over politics! I’m literally still in shock, and also ashamed that our country lags so far behind on this issue. This courageous ruling and the equally courageous decision NOT to appeal should stand as a shining example to all states and countries worldwide grappling with this issue. It seems so obvious to me that equal rights and protections MUST apply to all, not just to those who are part of the status quo. Have we forgotten that our beloved Constitution and Bill of Rights were drafted to protect the minority from oppression by the majority? It is time to act as true American patriots and allow gays the same basic human rights as everyone else in the US enjoys. In point of fact, ONLY gays are still discriminated against in this manner. No other group, creed, or race continues to endure such overt prejudice, stereotyping and government-sanctioned denial of their basic human rights and protections. Mayor Macri said it best, "What we have to learn is to live in liberty without violating the rights of others." Isn't it sad that the birthplace of democracy has to be taught what freedom actually means?
— The Curator