The vote marks a significant progressive milestone for a typically conservative European country. But not everyone on the predominantly Roman Catholic island has welcomed the move.
The Marriage Equality Bill (formally titled the Marriage Bills and other Laws) passed in Valletta on Wednesday simply changes select words in existing Maltese marriage laws, thereby including homosexual couples.
In a 66 to 1 vote, parliamentarians from both the ruling Labour Party and the center-right alliance opposition, National Force, agreed to replace the words “husband” and “wife” with the gender-neutral term “spouse.” The word “parent” will take the place of “mother” and “father,” while the phrases “the person who gave birth” and “the other parent” will be used to describe lesbian couples who have children via medical processes.
The sole objecting member of parliament, Edwin Vassallo, described the “morally unacceptable” law as incompatible with his Catholic faith.
“A Christian politician cannot leave his conscience outside the door” of parliament, Vassallo said.
Gay marriage supporters celebrate outside Malta’s parliament after the Marriage Equality Bill passed.
Social Dialogue Minister Helena Dalli, who brought the bill to parliament, said its intention was to “modernize the institution of marriage” in the traditionally conservative island nation of around 420,000 people. Divorce was illegal in Malta until 2011 and it remains the only nation in the European Union (EU) that entirely bans abortions. Civil partnerships were only introduced in 2014; Malta also inherited laws against sodomy from colonial power Britain, revoking them in 1973, just a few years after the UK.
Wednesday’s vote to legalize same-sex marriage is Malta’s most recent step in establishing itself as a leader in LGBT rights. In December 2016, Malta unanimously banned gender identity conversion therapy – a practice to “cure” homosexuals which had been legal up until then – becoming the first, and only EU nation as of yet, to do so.
The Catholic Church – a historically powerful force in Maltese society – decried the gay marriage law, arguing that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.
“I can decide that a carob and an orange should no longer be called by their name,” Archbishop Charles Scicluna said in his homily in the days following the start of the parliamentary debate on the issue. “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.”
The German news agency dpa reported that silent demonstrators had gathered outside the parliament on Wednesday to protest the law on a religious basis.
The Life Network Foundation of Malta, a Catholic pro-life non-profit organization, also opposed the bill’s passage.
In a statement sent to Maltese parliamentarians ahead of the vote and shared with DW, Chairperson Dr. Miriam Sciberras argued that the legislation “is not about bringing gay marriage at par with heterosexual marriage, but introducing the former whilst eliminating inherent concepts of the latter.” Among other things, the organization objected to the word changes the new law would introduce, saying that “spouses” and “parent” meant the bill was about the “abolition of heterosexual couples.”
“This law is not really about equality,” Sciberras told DW via phone. “It is about taking something away from heterosexual couples… It is not really about inclusion. We feel it is about imposing a lifestyle on people.”
Opponents of the Marriage Equality Bill often object on the basis of religion.
Personal and political victory
But the gay community heralded the parliament’s decision, with celebrations planned for Wednesday night. For many, the vote proved that Malta is no longer dominated by the Catholic Church.
The bill’s passage was also a triumph for the socially progressive Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who achieved an overwhelming re-election victory in June. Muscat’s Labour party had promised to kick off its legislative agenda with the Marriage Equality Bill. He described separate marriage laws for homosexual and heterosexual couples as “discriminatory.”
Describing Wednesday’s vote as “historic,” Muscat also said, “It shows that our democracy and our society are maturing.”
During Muscat’s first term in office, the government began recognizing gay marriages performed abroad. It also legalized civil unions performed in Malta for gay and heterosexual couples alike.
Last year, the number of solely civil unions surpassed that of church weddings for the first time since the former’s introduction in 2014.
In addition to legalizing gay marriage, the new law also affects heterosexual marriages: references to “maiden name” will be replaced with “surname at birth” and couples will now be able to choose which name to take after tying the knot.
Malta, the smallest member of the European Union by population and size, follows on the heels of Germany in its June decision to legalize gay marriage. 13 EU nations have legalized gay marriage within their borders, while an additional 14 recognize same-sex civil unions.
The European Greens celebrated the bill’s passage on Twitter while calling for continued action.
Malta is the 24th country worldwide to legalize gay marriage.