With a lopsided vote in parliament and a burst of cheers from the packed gallery, the Netherlands today became the first country to allow same-sex couples to marry on the same terms as men and women.
The 190 to 33 vote marked the latest instance of the Dutch breaking social policy barriers, joining liberal drug laws, legal prostitution and sanctioned euthanasia. It seemed certain to add to the Netherlands' reputation in Europe and beyond for enacting 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 wed legally.
"A person's sex is not important for marriage," one of the bill's chief sponsors, Boris Dittrich of the Democrats 66 party, told the Associated Press after the vote in The Hague.
The law must still 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 that the Dutch vote will spur moves toward similar measures in America's state capitals. In the meantime, it could bring some American gay and lesbian 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 the United 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.
"The discussion was years ago," said a spokeswoman for the Dutch Embassy in Washington. "We are always a bit ahead of other countries. We had those discussions years before other countries even started."
But the debate was not unanimous, and some conservative religious institutions have kept silent 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 the 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. But the law enacted today 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 between heterosexual and homosexual.
"What the Dutch parliament has done is not create a marriage for same-sex couples, but allows marriage on the same footing as other people," said Evan Wolfson, director of the Marriage Project for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York. "That's a wonderful recognition that love is what counts. . . . The Netherlands is now essentially allowing all couples to say 'I do.' "
Mary Bonauto, of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders in Boston, said: "I'm just so pleased. I'm thrilled. By calling it an out-and-out regular partnership, what the Dutch have done is affirm the quality and dignity of gay couples."