PARIS -- The French cabinet approved a draft bill legalizing same-sex marriage on Wednesday after weeks of loud opposition, especially from religious figures and the political right.
During his successful campaign for president, François Hollande promised to legalize same-sex marriage. On Wednesday, he said the measure represented "progress for all of society." Mr. Hollande and his Socialist Party have a majority in both houses of Parliament, and the bill is expected to pass sometime early next year.
The draft law redefines marriage to stipulate that it is "contracted between two persons of different sex or of the same sex," and the words "father" and "mother" in existing legislation are replaced by "parents." The bill would also allow married gay couples to adopt children.
Christiane Taubira, the justice minister, told the conservative newspaper La Croix that "marriage for all," as the government calls it, was a response to "a demand for equality."
But the move to legalize same-sex marriage has been controversial, and the bill was subject to delays in a country where only married couples can adopt. Opinion polls indicate that a majority of the French support gay marriage, but only half approve allowing gays to adopt.
On Wednesday, Serge Dassault, an influential senator from the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, the party of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, said the bill represented "the end of the family, the end of children's development, the end of education." He called it "an enormous danger to the nation."
Dominique Bertinotti, the minister of family affairs, rejected that criticism, saying, "On the contrary, it is a legal protection."
The cabinet decision came a day after Maine and Maryland became the first American states to approve same-sex marriage in a popular vote. Also on Tuesday, Spain's highest court upheld that country's law allowing same-sex marriage seven years after it was passed and after more than 21,000 same-sex couples had married.
If the French bill passes, France will become the 12th country, including Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Spain and Sweden, to make its marriage laws "gender neutral." In Germany, registered same-sex couples have essentially the same legal rights as married heterosexual couples, but same-sex marriage is not legal.
Last month, several hundred people demonstrated against the bill in several cities across France, including Bordeaux, Strasbourg and Lille, emphasizing their opposition to the adoption of children by gays.
The most virulent opposition has come from religious leaders, with Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Paris, calling it an act of "deception." In a speech before 120 bishops in Lourdes on Saturday, the cardinal said the law would establish "the marriage of a few imposed on everyone."
He continued, "When we defend the right of children to build their personality with reference to the man and the woman who gave them life, we are not defending a particular position."
Gilles Bernheim, the chief rabbi of France, sent a 25-page report to the government, calling "marriage for all" a "slogan," rather than a societal project.
"There would not be courage and no glory in voting a law by using slogans more than arguments and by complying to the dominant political correctness," Rabbi Bernheim wrote.
Muslim, Protestant and Orthodox Christian religious leaders have also opposed the bill.
Conservative and far-right politicians have called for street protests and asked the government to delay the bill. Marine Le Pen, who leads the far-right National Front, called for a referendum on the issue, and others said they wanted more debate. One Paris official, François Lebel, mayor of the Eighth Arrondissement, warned that if the government broke the taboo of gay marriage, it would lead to the breaking of other taboos, like incest or polygamy, a hot topic among conservatives worried about the spread of conservative Islam in France.
In a compromise, the bill does not include state aid for artificial insemination and other forms of assisted procreation for gay couples. Such aid is available for heterosexual married couples, and some Socialist deputies have vowed to amend the text of the bill or include such aid in a follow-up bill. Nicolas Gougain, a spokesman for Inter-LGBT, a major association defending gay rights in France, said, "It is progress, but also a problem," because adoption takes a long time and there are few babies available to adopt in France.
According to French associations of gay men and lesbians, more than 300,000 children have gay parents.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.