LIANE HANSEN, host:
Catholic doctrine spilled into the streets of Rome this weekend as tens of thousands of Italians rallied against a proposed civil union's law, while other staged a counterdemonstration. 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.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on how the bill has polarized Italian society.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Conservative Catholics, entire families, young and old, were bused into Rome from parishes all over the country.
Unidentified Man: (Italian spoken)
POGGIOLI: One group entered the large square at St. John the Lateran, led by a priest reciting The Lord's Prayer on a loudspeaker.
Unidentified Group: (Italian spoken)
POGGIOLI: Under a scorching sun, the demonstrators waved banners with harsh slogans against the government's civil unions bill. T-shirts carried the picture of Prime Minister Romano Prodi and the words, 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.
Alessandro del Priggiobe(ph) came from Naples to defend the traditional family, which he believes is under attack.
Mr. ALESSANDRO del PRIGGIOBE: And we have to defend the children. It's not possible, a child growing in a family with two fathers or two women. He has the right to look at two different roles, so the growing is better.
POGGIOLI: Prime Minister Prodi is a devout Catholic and is one of the co-authors of the bill, which would entitle unmarried couples who live together to rights such as hospital visits and inheritance. Eighteen-year-old Elena(ph) came to Rome from Venice. She doesn't believe Italy should emulate France, Spain or Belgium.
ELENA: (Through translator) Sometimes, going against the current is the right choice. We shouldn't always follow the general trend. In this case, I don't think it's bad to be outside the European mainstream, on the contrary.
POGGIOLI: The rally was organized by Catholic lay organizations and family groups with the backing of the Italian Bishops Conference. Andrei Acomiso(ph) from Verona expressed disdain for the separation between church and state.
Mr. ANDREI ACOMISO (Resident, Verona, Italy): (Through translator) I'm not interested in saying I'm a Democrat or not a Democrat. My prime reference points aren't the state parliament and its laws. As a Christian, my first duty is to God and to the church.
POGGIOLI: One of the biggest banners at the Catholic rally had the words: Secularists Are Like the Taliban.
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POGGIOLI: On the other side of town, at a counterdemonstration in Piazza Navona, the slogans were just as tough. One banner had the words: You can't negotiate civil rights with the Vatican and the Taliban.
Claudia Tuscano(ph) came from the Adriatic City of Pescara to support civil rights, which she believes are being undermined by a Catholic Church offensive.
Ms. CLAUDIA TUSCANO (Resident, Pescara): We are secular and the constitution is very secular. And that now the church is improving more and more their power because the politics are listening to the church, because of the votes.
POGGIOLI: The secular rally was much smaller than the Catholic protest, but the passion was as high. One of the main speakers of the counter-rally was radical party leader and government minister, Emma Bonino.
Ms. EMMA BONINO (Italian Radical; Member, Italian Parliament for the Rose in the Fist): (Through translator) This is the square of inclusion. Whatever your situation - married, unmarried, cohabiting, divorced. Politicians should deal with the rights and duties of citizens. It's not up to politicians to judge whether people have sinned, each one deals with that with one's own God.
POGGIOLI: 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. For the first time in decades, the Vatican has entered the political fray by encouraging conservative Catholics to challenge the secular world.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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