Italian Civil Union Protests Highlight a Schism

Catholic doctrine spilled into the streets of Rome this weekend, as tens of thousands of Italians rallied against a proposed civil unions law, while others staged a counter-demonstration. The law at issue would give greater rights to unmarried couples, including gay couples.

Pope Benedict has denounced the proposal as a threat to the traditional family. And for the first time in decades, the Vatican has entered the political fray by encouraging conservative Catholics to challenge the secular world.

For the church event, called "Family Day 2007," conservative Catholics — entire families, young and old — were bussed in to Rome from parishes all over the country.

The bill has polarized Italian society, as many politicians see the Vatican's opposition as a challenge to the separation of church and state. The Radical Party is organizing a counter-rally, called "The Future Is Secular," for people who object to what they see as the church's interference in Italian politics.

Under a scorching sun, church demonstrators waved banners with harsh slogans against the government civil unions bill. T-shirts carried the picture of Prime Minister Romano Prodi and called him a "Family Buster."

The demonstrators railed against a bill they see as a Trojan horse for gay marriage, which is already legal in several European countries.

Prodi is a devout catholic, as is one of the authors of the bill, which would entitle unmarried couples who live together rights such as hospital visits and inheritance.

The rally was organized by catholic lay organizations and family groups, with the backing of the Italian Bishops' Conference.

One of the biggest banners at the catholic rally had the message , "Secularists Are Like the Taliban."

On the other side of town, at a counter demonstration in Piazza Navona, the slogans were just as tough. One banner had the words in Italian, "You can't negotiate civil rights with the Vatican and the Taliban."

The secular rally was much smaller than the Catholic protest. But the passion was as high.

A worried Prime Minister Prodi appealed to Italians. "We must not manipulate religion," he said. "In all modern countries, secularists and Catholics can live together."

But the two Rome rallies highlighted an unprecedented religious-secular divide in Italian society.

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