updated 6/18/2005 9:18:12 PM ET 2005-06-19T01:18:12

Hundreds of thousands of protesters led by 20 Roman Catholic bishops and conservative opposition leaders marched through Madrid on Saturday to demonstrate against a government bill to legalize gay marriage and gay adoption.

The gay marriage bill is expected to become law in a matter of weeks. It has been passed by the lower chamber of Parliament and will be voted on next week by the Senate.

Organizers claimed that 1.5 million people had attended. But media eyewitnesses found the estimate difficult to believe, with most putting the crowd size at some 500,000. No police figure was immediately available.

Banners reading “FamilyMan+Woman” and “A mother and father

for every child” could be seen up and down the demonstration, which was attended by families and individuals of all ages. Handfuls of priests and nuns mixed with lay protesters.

Opinion polls indicate a majority of Spaniards support the bill.

Comparison to Nazi Germany
Fr. Jose Ramon Velasco compared the bill to the beginnings of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

“Back then the majority of people also backed Hitler just like the majority back this law,” he said. “I’m serious, give it time and it will destroy the moral fiber of Spain and the West.”

The demonstration was among the largest displays of anti-government activism led by the church in more than 20 years, and it forced a halt to above-ground traffic in most of central Madrid.

Earlier Saturday, Deputy Socialist Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega defended the law and accused protesters of discrimination, saying their actions meant they wanted the rights they enjoyed to be denied to others. The new law “does not oblige anyone to do anything they don’t want to do,” she said.

Although the protest was backed by Spain’s Episcopal Conference and the Popular Party, there appeared to be divisions over the issue within both groups. Neither the bishops’ conference president, Ricardo Blazquez, nor Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy were present.

Also absent from the protest were the Popular Party’s leaders in Madrid — regional government president Esperanza Aguirre and city mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardon.

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