A key parliamentary committee approved proposals for same-sex marriages in South Africa on Thursday, clearing the way for the passage of legislation that would be unique on a deeply conservative continent.
But a compromise thrashed out after months of heated public discussion upset religious groups and traditionalists and left even some members of the governing African National Congress (ANC) uneasy, while gay rights activists said it didn't go far enough.
"It's been a very difficult time. It was a major challenge," said Patrick Chauke, chairman of the Home Affairs Portfolio Committee, which spent weeks touring the country to gauge public opinion and received nearly 6,000 written comments.
The Civil Unions Bill will now go to a full session of parliament on Tuesday. Despite unhappiness in ANC ranks, it is expected to pass as lawmakers have been ordered to follow the party line and told there is little room for maneuver.
Denmark in 1989 became the first country to legislate for same-sex partnerships and several other EU members have followed suit. In the US, only the state of Massachusetts allows gay marriage, Vermont and Connecticut permit civil unions, and more than a dozen states grant lesser legal rights to gay couples.
In Africa, homosexuality is still largely taboo and is illegal in most countries.
South Africa recognized the rights of gay people in the Constitution adopted after apartheid ended in 1994 -- the first in the world to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But the government long opposed attempts to extend the definition of marriage in court to include same-sex couples in the mostly Christian country.
Married couples have numerous rights still denied gay couples, including the ability to make decisions on each other's behalf in medical emergencies, and inheritance rights if a partner dies without a will.
South Africa's Constitutional Court last year ruled that the country's marriage legislation was illegal because it discriminated against same sex couples. It gave the government until Dec. 1 to adopt new legislation.
The bill provides for the "voluntary union of two persons, which is solemnized and registered by either a marriage or civil union." It does not specify whether they are heterosexual or gay partnerships.
But it also says marriage officers need not perform a ceremony between same sex couples if doing so would conflict with his or her "conscience, religion and belief." That could leave gay couples shopping for someone to perform their ceremony.
Gay rights groups welcomed the inclusion of the term "marriage" but said they were disappointed that homosexual couples were being treated differently from heterosexual couples because of the opt-out clause.
"Everyone should be governed by one law," said Vista Kaupa of the Triangle Project, which provides support for gays and lesbians. "Marriage should be for everyone. There should be one encompassing umbrella for everyone."
Jonathan Berger of the AIDS Law Project said the wording implied that there was "something inherently problematic about same sex marriage."
He predicted that the bill would be open to challenge as it did not comply with the Constitutional Court ruling that there must be full equality before the law.
Marie Fourie and Cecelia Bonthuys, a couple from Pretoria, sued the government for not recognizing their October 2002 wedding. The government lost the case, as well as the appeal in the Supreme Court of Appeal and the top court, the Constitutional Court.