Argentina has become the first country in Latin America to legalise same-sex marriage, giving gay and lesbian couples all the legal rights afforded to heterosexuals.

The senate debated the issue for 16 hours before holding a ballot in which 33 people voted for the ruling, 27 against and three abstained.

Since the lower house had already supported the bill and President Cristina Fernandez was a strong advocate, it became law.

The Roman Catholic Church and evangelical groups had led a campaign against the change which drew 60,000 people to protest outside Congress in Buenos Aires.

Same-sex civil unions have already been legalised in Uruguay, Buenos Aires and some states in Mexico and Brazil.

But they do not give same-sex couples equal rights to that of heterosexual married couples.

Under the new law same-sex married couples will be allowed to adopt children and inherit wealth.

The president of the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals, Maria Rachid, praised the decision to give all married couples equal rights.

“Nearly every political and social figure has spoken out in favour of marriage equality for everyone,” she said.

“Argentina, from today forward, is a more just country for all families.”

But among the opponents is teacher Eduardo Morales who believes the law was concocted by residents of Buenos Aires who are out of step with the views of the rest of the country.

“They want to convert this city into the gay capital of the world,” Mr Morales said.

Another opponent of the law is Ines Franck, director of the group Familias Argentinas, who said the legislation cuts against centuries of tradition.

Opposing the measure “is not discrimination, because the essence of a family is between two people of opposite sexes”, he said.

“Any variation goes against the law, and against nature.”

The president is currently in China but she spoke out there against the Argentine Catholic Church’s campaign.

“It’s very worrisome to hear words like ‘God’s war’ or ‘the devil’s project’, things that recall the times of the Inquisition,” she said.

President Fernandez and her husband, former president Nestor Kirchner, have been accused of changing the law to gain votes in next year’s presidential elections when Mr Kirchner is expected to run again.

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