Malta has become the 22nd European country to recognize same-sex unions and the 10th to allow gay couples to adopt children following a parliament vote, going against the warnings of the Roman Catholic Church, which is the official state religion.
The bill passed by a vote of 37-0, with the opposition abstaining because it is in favor of gay unions but not in allowing gay couples to adopt.
The vote prompted celebratory scenes for the thousands who had gathered at the central square in the capital Valletta to support the passage of the bill.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of the Labour Party said that the vote in favor of the bill separates the past from the future, Times of Malta reported, adding that he would have liked to see the law enacted earlier.
Muscat argued that the government moved the bill because it believed in it, and it "was doing it for the minority, but also for the majority, which would live in a country which was more equal, liberal and European."
He also said that proposed amendments to the bill by the opposition were rejected because principles are not something that can be compromised with.
Opposition leader Simon Busuttil had expressed concerns for children's rights, saying that they come first and pointing out that adoptions are not a right of couples, heterosexual or otherwise.
Busuttil clarified that his argument is not that gay people cannot be good parents, but that Malta was not yet prepared for such a step.
Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna had warned before the vote that although the civil unions bill had some good points, it did not provide what's best for the children. He spoke out against the language in the bill, which says that a child's adoptive parents may now be a man and a man, or a woman and a woman.
"This does not reflect the order established by God in creation and may expose the children eventually entrusted to such adoptive parents to adverse effects. This goes against the principle that the best interests of the child should be the paramount concern in legislation. It is hoped that this principle will remain paramount whenever the new law is applied."
The CIA World Factbook states that 98 percent of Malta's 412,000 population is part of the Roman Catholic Church, the official state religion.
Last month, Pope Francis said in an interview that the Church may be open to looking into some cases of civil unions, particularly when it involves benefits such as healthcare, but affirmed the official Vatican position that marriage is between a man and a woman.
"Matrimony is between a man and a woman," the pope said in an article by the Corriere della Sera, translated by Catholic News Service, but added that "diverse situations of cohabitation [are] driven by the need to regulate economic aspects among persons, as for instance to assure medical care."
"It is necessary to look at the diverse cases and evaluate them in their variety," Francis suggested.