Germany's justice minister has vowed to introduce legislation to permit same-sex marriages before the end of the summer, overriding the objections of the country's powerful conservative lobby.
Brigitte Zypries said the government would bypass the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament where conservatives hold the majority, to grant gay and lesbian couples the same rights as heterosexual couples.
In an interview with Berliner Zeitung, Ms Zypries, a member of the ruling Social Democratic party, said: "Gay and lesbian couples are a social reality in Germany. Therefore we will grant them, as far as is compatible with constitutional rights of marriage and family, the same rights as [heterosexual] couples."
Gay couples have been able to register their relationships since 2001, but the new laws will grant them almost all of the same rights as married heterosexuals. In addition to tax benefits, gay and lesbian couples will inherit pensions and property from their partners if they die. They will also be entitled to alimony and property if they get divorced and be barred from testifying against their partners in trials.
"[Same-sex couples] must pay maintenance, provide for each other once they are married," she said. "They will enjoy the same constitutional rights and be treated equally."
The only exception is that a ban on gay couples adopting other people's children will remain in force. However, gay couples can adopt each other's children, if one of the partners is the biological parent.
Germany's powerful conservatives are fighting the extension of marriage laws to homosexuals, but will be powerless to stop half the changes going into force.
Three years ago the opposition Christian Democratic Union and the church challenged the registration of same-sex lifetime partnerships in the federal constitutional court.
But the court ruled that same-sex unions were permitted by the constitution, although gay couples do not enjoy the same rights of marriage and family as heterosexual couples. About 5,000 same-sex couples have registered lifetime partnerships.
Michael Schmidt, organiser of the annual gay and lesbian Christopher Street Day parade, said: "The problem with the same-sex life partnerships is that it brings only obligations and virtually no rights. It has not been popular."
The government attempted to introduce the same tax rules for registered gay and lesbian couples as heterosexual couples in 2002, but the Bundesrat vetoed the proposal.
This time Ms Zypries will dodge conservative opposition by splitting the new laws into two parts. The first package will be presented before the summer recess and deals with changes to the law on adoption and inheritance rights.
While the Bundestag can vote against these laws, the federal government does not need the approval of the upper house. But the Bundestag does have the power to veto laws that affect taxation and the rights of citizens and these will be included in the second passage in the autumn.
"The fight for the second package will be much harder. The conservatives have a very strong rightwing political mentality. They are opposed to all liberal ideas like loosening immigration laws or granting gays more rights," Mr Schmidt said. "But if you look same-sex relations and heterosexual ones, there are no really big differences so they should be granted the same rights."
The issue of same-sex marriage has become increasingly contentious across Europe. In France Noël Mamére, the mayor of Begles in the south-west of France, presided over the country's first gay marriage at the weekend, despite warnings that he was breaking the law. The interior minister, Dominique de Villepin, has accused Mr Mamére of contravening the French civil code and has started disciplinary proceedings against him.
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