By Andrius Sytas
VILNIUS (Reuters) - Lithuania's parliament on Thursday voted to accept a draft bill legalizing same-sex civil partnerships for further debate, after voting down a similar bill in May 2021.
Seventy lawmakers voted in favour and 52 against accepting the measure for discussion, with several opponents raising questions about whether legalizing same-sex partnerships would go against Catholic teachings.
Proponents were mildly encouraged but acknowledged that challenges lay ahead to passage of the bill in the strongly Catholic country.
"My feelings are mixed after the vote," Elzbieta Latenaite, an openly bisexual actress and activist, told reporters in parliament.
"On the one hand, the parliament took a step towards Europe, towards Western values. But on the other hand, there's nothing joyous that even such a restrained bill cannot pass without a big fight, with powerful homophobes hurling insults at citizens who want equal rights," she said.
An April 2021 a poll found 70% of adult Lithuanians oppose same-sex partnerships.
"Same-sex union is a sin, whichever way we look at it", said opposition MP Algimantas Dambrava during the heated discussion in parliament.
Three in four Lithuanians identify as Roman Catholics, and the head of the local church body told lawmakers to stay clear of such partnerships as they risk changing "the natural concept of the family".
In a nod to critics, the same-sex bill no longer defines partnerships as an "emotional connection" or allows partners to assume a common surname.
"The law could better defend human dignity, but support was needed and this was the lowest threshold possible," said Gabrielius Landsbergis, head of the ruling Homeland Union party.
The lawmakers will also debate an alternative same-sex couple legislation, dropping partnerships - seen by some proponents as too similar to marriage - for the right for any cohabitating people to legally declare "a close connection" between them.
The nation of 2.8 million, once ruled from Moscow, has been a member of the European Union and NATO since 2004.
(Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Editing by Bernadette Baum)