LIANE HANSEN, host:
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.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has this story from Rome.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Rome's central Piazza Farneze, flanked by Renaissance palazzos, was loud and festive as perhaps as many as 50,000 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.
(Soundbite of demonstration)
POGGIOLI: Addressing the crowd from a large podium, organizer Alexandro Zan(ph) said this rally is meant to unite, not divide. Italy is one of the few European Union countries that have 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. Nicole Deleo(ph) and her female partner came from Bologna to take part in the rally.
Ms. NICOLE DELEO (Demonstrator): We want our rights recognize. It's so simple.
POGGIOLI: Deleo calls the people next door the main obstacle.
Ms. DELEO: Where the dome, Michelangelo dome is, I'm talking about the Vatican. I'm talking about the clergy, because they think that what I am is a sin. I am a sinner.
POGGIOLI: An estimated 1,200,000 Italians are part of an unwed couple. But it wasn't just gays rallying yesterday; there were also many heterosexual couples with children. Rosetta Stephanini(ph) was pushing a baby carriage with her tiny daughter inside.
Ms. ROSETTA STEPHANINI (Demonstrator): (Through translator) It's important that civil unions be made law to safeguard many women, many men, and of course many children. The bill has been distorted. It's being use to contrast married couples against de facto couples. But in reality, we are all family. We should all have the same rights.
POGGIOLI: 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 use to indicate rejection - non possumus - roughly it's not possible. And hardly a day goes by without a strong statement against the bill from a top-level Vatican official or the pope himself.
Unidentified Man: (Through translator) No law made by men can subvert the norms written by the creator. Forgetting this would mean weakening the family, punishing children and undermining the future of society.
POGGIOLI: The tone of the Vatican campaign has stunned Stephano Uruduta(ph), one of the country's leading jurists. He says the Vatican is trying to abolish the separation between church and state.
Mr. STEPHANO URDUTA (Italian Jurist): (Through translator) 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. In this way, it's trying to exercise its sovereignty over the Italian state, a violation of the treaty between the Vatican and Italy.
POGGIOLI: 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 Capato(ph) says the Vatican has much less influence over Italian society than it has over both right and left-wing politicians.
Mr. MARCO CAPATO (Human Rights Activist): In reality, if both of them would have the courage to defy, to challenge the Vatican, many, many Catholics, the majority of Catholics, would be with them. But unfortunately, Italian politicians are lacking courage to do so.
POGGIOLI: Opinion polls show that over 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.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.