VIENNA — Austria's parliament passed legislation Thursday allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil unions, a move hailed by proponents as a historic win for gay rights in the country.
The bill, slated to become law Jan. 1, will give same-sex couples many of the rights enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts, including access to a pension if one partner dies and alimony in the event of a split.
"We are living in the 21st century and I'm very glad this step is being taken today," Justice Minister Claudia Bandion-Ortner said during parliamentary debate leading up to the vote.
Christian Hoegl, co-president of the Homosexual Initiative Vienna, Austria's oldest group of gays and lesbians, agreed.
"It's a relief, a big success and a reward for two decades of lobbying," Hoegl said.
Earlier in the day, Hoegl and co-president Jona Solomon passed out pink rum-filled cupcakes to parliamentarians, along with a letter that urged them to vote yes.
The legislation — considered a compromise between the governing coalition — did not pass unanimously. In the end, of the 174 lawmakers who cast ballots, 110 voted in favor of the bill, and 64 voted against it.
The opposition right-wing Freedom Party rejected it outright, saying it goes too far. The Greens, on the other hand, argued it was too limited.
Freedom Party chief Heinz-Christian Strache said the parliament's approval went against the will of most Austrians and undermined the institution of marriage.
The new bill also formally bans the adoption of children or artificial insemination for same-sex couples.
And, unlike straight couples, gay couples will not be able to record their unions at the civil registry office but with another authority instead. The issue led to heated debate in recent weeks, with critics saying it clearly signals that a same-sex partnership isn't given the same weight as a marriage between a man and a woman.
Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek, a Social Democrat who is the country's minister for women's affairs and fought against the registration differences, described the vote as "the first step in the right direction."