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South African Assembly Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage Law

In South Africa, the National Assembly has passed a law legalizing same sex unions. The first such law in Africa, it sparked heated debate for months.

The South African parliament Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a law allowing same-sex unions.

The deputy chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, Peggy Hollander, announced the vote.

"The voting session is now closed and the result of the division is as follows: the ayes 230, the nos 41 and abstentions three."

The law, known as the Civil Union Act, was condemned by religious groups and traditional leaders and criticized by gay rights groups as insufficient.

It passed because the ruling African National Congress instructed its delegates to vote for it without exception.

A researcher at Johannesburg's Center for Applied Legal Studies, Beth Goldblatt, says nevertheless the law represents an important step for civil rights in South Africa.

"I am pleased that there is finally legislation which permits same-sex couples to marry, but I have some concerns that this legislation is inadequate, poorly drafted and not quite what would have been the ideal solution," she said.

South Africa's Constitutional Court one year ago decided that the existing marriage law was unconstitutional because it discriminated against same-sex couples. It ordered the government to provide new marriage legislation by December 1.

Goldblatt says the simplest solution would have been to amend the marriage act to allow same-sex marriages. But she says the parliament has created a new institution.

She says the legislation provides the same protections as the marriage law, but that it is a separate, parallel law.

"So although there is no actual difference in the consequences of the law it still seems to be saying that if you are a same-sex couple you cannot use the marriage act that is provided for heterosexual couples and that seems to offend the same-sex couples' dignity," she said.

As a result, Goldblatt predicts that gay rights groups will challenge the constitutionality of the Civil Union Act.

The new law also includes a provision that allows marriage officials to refuse to carry out the ceremony on religious or personal grounds.

Gay rights activists say this measure discriminates against them and is therefore unconstitutional.

Religious groups and traditional leaders have proposed amending the South African constitution to forbid same-sex marriages.

But many believe this will be difficult to carry out because of widespread support for individual freedoms in a country where the memories of the apartheid era are still fresh.