updated 12/1/2005 8:46:57 AM ET 2005-12-01T13:46:57

South Africa's highest court ruled Thursday it is unconstitutional to bar gay marriage, paving the way for this country to become the first in Africa to legalize homosexual unions.

Gay rights activists welcomed the ruling on a continent where homosexuality remains largely taboo.

In its ruling, the court gave the country's parliament a year to change the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex couples.

"We were thinking we would be calling our friends today and inviting them to our wedding," said Fikile Vilakazi, of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, who proposed to her partner more than six months ago. "Now they are asking us to wait another year."

South Africa recognized the rights of gay people in the constitution adopted after apartheid ended in 1994, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But 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.

Marriage is defined in South Africa's common law and Marriage Act as a union between a man and a woman. The Constitutional Court has instructed Parliament to add the words "or spouse" to the definition within a year, or else the change will automatically be effected by the courts.

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