Demonstrators Rally for Italian Civil-Unions Bill

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A demonstrator dons a paper bishop’s miter i

A demonstrator dons a paper bishop's miter with words "Better gay than Opus Dei." Sylvia Poggioli, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
A demonstrator dons a paper bishop’s miter

A demonstrator dons a paper bishop's miter with words "Better gay than Opus Dei."

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Demonstrators wave rainbow flags and shout slogans i

Demonstrators wave rainbow flags and shout slogans against the Vatican outside Renaissance Palace on Saturday. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Demonstrators wave rainbow flags and shout slogans

Demonstrators wave rainbow flags and shout slogans against the Vatican outside Renaissance Palace on Saturday.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR

Tens of thousands of Italians rallied Saturday in Rome in support of a government bill that would grant new rights to unwed couples, including gays.

The bill has split the center-left government and is strongly opposed by the Vatican, which says it would undermine the traditional family and encourage homosexuality.

Rome's Central Piazza Farnese, flanked by renaissance palazzos, was loud and festive as demonstrators waved rainbow flags and shouted slogans against the Vatican.

Several demonstrators donned giant bishop's miters with the words "Better gay than Opus Dei."

Addressing the crowd from a large podium, organizer Alessandro Zan said the rally is meant to unite not divide.

Italy is one of the few European Union countries that has yet to grant rights to unwed couples.

The new bill is one of the mildest on the continent. It would allow hospital visitation, inheritance and other legal rights to both heterosexual and same-sex couples.

An estimated 1,200,000 Italians are part of an unwed couple, but it wasn't just gays rallying Saturday; there were also many heterosexual couples with children.

"It's important that civil unions be made law to safeguard many women, many men and of course many children," says Rosetta Stefanini, who was at the rally with her infant daughter. "The bill has been distorted. It's being used to contrast married couples against de facto couples. But in reality, we are all families and we should all have the same rights."

In the battle over civil unions, the Vatican has been pulling no punches. The Italian bishops' conference has announced the imminent release of guidelines on how Catholic politicians should vote. Its official paper went so far as to make a headline banner of the classical Latin phrase popes used to indicate rejection — non possumus — roughly, "It's not possible."

Hardly a day goes by without a strong statement against the bill from a top-level Vatican official or the pope himself.

The tone of the Vatican campaign has stunned Stefano Rodota, one of the country's leading jurists. He says the Vatican is trying to abolish the separation between church and state.

"The Vatican is telling Italian Catholics that they should follow the teachings and values of the Catholic Church, not the values enshrined in the Italian constitution," Rodota says. "In this way, it's trying to exercise its sovereignty over the Italian state, a violation of the treaty between the Vatican and Italy."

The Vatican campaign has put a wedge in the center-left government, which ranges from Catholics to communists.

Two deputies from coalition parties recently exchanged insults on a TV talk show. One conservative Catholic said homosexuality is deviant, the other, a gay activist, called her a racist.

Similar divisions have emerged among the center-right opposition parties.

Human rights activist Marco Capatto says the Vatican has much less influence over Italian society than it has over both right- and the left-wing politicians.

In reality, if both of them would have the courage to defy, to challenge the Vatican, many, many Catholics, the majority of Catholics, will be with them," Capatto says. "But, unfortunately, Italian politicians are lacking courage to do so."

Opinion polls show that more than two-thirds of Italians favor legalization of de facto couples, regardless of sexual orientation.

And one of the two authors of the government bill is a militant Catholic, family policy minister Rosy Bindi, who accused the Vatican of sowing division among the faithful.

The Vatican shows no sign of backing down, but analysts point out that in past church-state showdowns three decades ago — over divorce and abortion — Italians voted overwhelmingly for liberalization and against the Church.

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