SANTIAGO, CHILE —
After nearly four years of legislative wrangling, legislators in socially conservative Chile on Wednesday gave the green light to civil unions for same-sex and unmarried heterosexual couples.
The bill, known as the Civil Union Accord, will give many of the legal rights afforded to married couples to an estimated two million Chileans.
Most of those expected to benefit from the civil unions are unmarried heterosexual couples, though the move is also seen as a big step forward for gay rights.
"Civil unions are an essential institution for unmarried couples that live together," said government spokesman Alvaro Elizalde. "This is a legal status that does not discriminate and that will be applied to all types of couples, and most importantly, that recognizes the different types of families we have in our country, giving protection to all of them."
The bill now heads back to President Michelle Bachelet to be signed into law.
In her second term in office, Bachelet has been pushing through legislation at a dizzying pace, including a recently approved tax reform bill, changes to Chile's stratified education system and an overhaul of dictatorship-era electoral rules.
"There's been a profound cultural change in Chilean society, which is reflected in [the fact that] a majority of people disapprove of discrimination and segregation based on someone's sexual orientation or their gender identity," Rolando Jimenez, spokesman for LGBT rights group Movilh, told Reuters.
Chile, one of Latin America's richest countries, is still heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, which has traditionally considered homosexuality sinful.
"I feel very proud that we took this historic step," said Senate President Isabel Allende, daughter of the late former President Salvador Allende. "I believe we've made progress for the respect, the rights and the dignity of people."