VALLETTA, Malta — The predominantly Roman Catholic island nation of Malta is set to legalize gay marriage, joining much of Western Europe by replacing the traditional "you are now husband and wife" declaration in civil ceremonies with "you are now spouses."
The Catholic Church had opposed the legislation, which the Labor government promised to introduce as its first law after winning a second term last month and which both opposition parties support. The only question heading into Wednesday's parliamentary vote was whether there would be any votes against.
The aim of the law, piloted by Equality Minister Helena Dalli, is to "modernize the institution of marriage" to extend it to all consenting adult couples.
Its passage is the latest evidence of the transformation of the once conservative island nation of about 440,000 people, where divorce was illegal until 2011.
While abortion remains banned in Malta, gay adoption has been legal since civil unions were introduced in 2014. Last year, the number of exclusively civil marriages eclipsed the number of church weddings for the first time.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna has opposed the gay marriage law, reflecting the church's longstanding view that marriage is only between a man and woman.
"I can decide that a carob and an orange should no longer be called by their name," he said in a homily a few days after parliament started debating the legislation. "But a carob remains a carob and an orange remains an orange. And marriage, whatever the law says, remains an eternal union exclusive to a man and a woman."
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat says it would be "discriminatory" to have separate laws for heterosexual and gay marriages.
So amendments to existing laws include the elimination of any reference to "husband and wife." In its place is the gender-neutral term "spouse" to cover all situations.
The law also calls for the removal of the terms "father" and "mother," to be substituted by "parents." Lesbian couples who have children via medical interventions are distinguished by the terms "the person who gave birth" and "the other parent."
Other changes concern same-sex marriages: Any reference to "maiden name" is replaced with "surname at birth," while couples can now choose what name to take after marriage. The man, for example, can take his wife's surname.
More than a dozen European countries have legalized same-sex marriage, all in the western part of the continent. Almost a dozen others, including Italy, have some sort of same-sex unions or civil partnerships, according to the Pew Research Center.