The Russian Duma, or the lower house of parliament, passed a law banning homosexual propaganda by an overwhelming 436-0 vote on Tuesday, leading to clashes between gay activists and their opponents.
"Traditional sexual relations are relations between a man and a woman, which ... are a condition for the preservation and development of the multi-ethnic Russian people," lawmaker Yelena Mizulina said on Tuesday before the Duma. "It is precisely these relations that need special protection by the state."
The bill, which must still pass the upper parliament and be signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, reflects the country's strong stance when it comes to issues of sexuality. Public displays of homosexuality have been banned in some of Russia's largest cities, including Saint Petersburg, and the Duma-approved bill now seeks to ban the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations," The Associated Press reported.
Some groups have protested against this bill, however, which also makes it a punishable offense to give children information about gay people.
"In the space of mere hours, the Duma succeeded in adopting two pieces of legislation that testify to the shrinking space for freedom of expression in Russia. They represent a sorry attempt by the government to bolster its popularity by pandering to the most reactionary elements of Russian society – at the expense of fundamental rights and the expression of individual identities," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia program director.
"These laws have no place on the statute books of modern, rights-respecting democracy. The bigger question right now is whether the current government has any interest in Russia becoming one."
The Russian Orthodox Church has been a strong supporter of traditional family values and opposed to Western liberalism on sexual issues, AP noted, and it sees the latter as a means of corrupting Russia's youth. Lawmakers have also argued that homosexuality further decreases Russia's low birth rate, which has been in decline in the past couple of decades.
The second bill referenced by Dalhuisen was passed 308-2 by the lower house on Tuesday, making offending religious feelings a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years in prison.
Gay rights activists clashed with the bill's supporters on Tuesday in front of the Duma in Moscow, with Christians carrying signs of Orthodox icons, and chanting prayers.
Reuters reported that a number of gay rights activists were arrested on Tuesday for holding a "kissing protest" in front of the Duma. The gay activists, however, were far outnumbered by Christians.
A scuffle broke out amid the opposing groups, which ended with police arresting around 20 of the gay protesters.
Putin has denied that Russia discriminates against gay people, but has stood up for socially conservative values and has enjoyed the support of the Russian Orthodox Church ever since he won the presidential election in May 2012.