updated 5/12/2007 8:44:04 PM ET 2007-05-13T00:44:04

Tens of thousands of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters rallied Saturday to tell Italy that they alone should be counted as families, pressuring parliament to reject legislation that would grant new rights to unmarried and same-sex couples.

The "Family Day" rally, drawing hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in an unexpectedly strong outpouring, was organized by lay Catholic groups and family associations. While the demonstration has been endorsed by Italian bishops, neither the Vatican nor the Italian bishops' conference is formally behind it.

"With this demonstration, we wanted to give a signal. It must not be a sporadic event, but it must contribute to dialogue and help (people) understand family must be protected," said Emanuele Cirillo, a 27-year-old Neapolitan who had traveled to Rome for the demonstration.

People from across Italy began pouring into the massive St. John Lateran piazza in the morning. The demonstrators were entertained by singers, speakers and even a brief video featuring the late John Paul II, the beloved pontiff who died in 2005, in a 1988 speech about the need to protect family.

Crowd bigger than expected
Clowns and stilt walkers mingled with the crowd to entertain the children.

By the end of the day, organizers said as many as 1.5 millions people had showed up, while police did not give a final estimate. Earlier, police had put the number of participants at 250,000 but the crowd had since become bigger.

The turnout was above the organizers' expectations.

Premier Romano Prodi's Cabinet passed the legislation at the center of the debate last February, and the bill now requires parliamentary approval.

Rights for the unmarried
The proposed legislation would grant legal rights to unmarried couples who live together, including hospital visits and inheritance. It does not legalize gay marriage, as was done in other European countries, such as Spain.

The bill has angered the Vatican, which under Pope Benedict XVI has campaigned to protect traditional family based on marriage between man and woman.

Benedict, speaking on the eve of the rally from Brazil, where he was traveling, accused the media of promoting sexual immorality. He also decried what he called the "plague" of extramarital unions.

The bill's critics say the legislation would dismantle the traditional family by offering an alternative model. Supporters argue that the bill would make Italy a more civilized nation by recognizing the basic rights of people who live outside marriage, and organized a counter-rally in Rome.

Prodi steers clear from ‘Family Day’
"We came here today to protest against those traditional families who think only they represent a real form of family," said Alberico Nunziata, 30, who is gay and arrived at the rally — a much smaller gathering expected to go into the night — with his partner.

"There is no need to get married in order to achieve something as a couple, there can be also different form of unions between two people, we personally hope to build a lot together," he added.

The "Family Day" has proven embarrassing for Prodi's center-left coalition, with at least two ministers taking part, while other center-leaders attending the counter-demonstration.

Prodi tried to defuse tensions Saturday, saying that religion should not be manipulated and calling secularism an "essential principle" of politics.

Many center-right leaders, including former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, attended the pro-family rally.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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