In this photo taken on Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, the hands of Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, right, who married his live-in partner Qiyaammudeen Jantjies, left, in South Africa, where gay marriage is recognized, during an interview with the Associated Press in Sevran, outside Paris. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
PARIS (AP) -- President Francois Hollande's Cabinet pushed ahead with a controversial French bill Wednesday that could see gay marriage legalized early next year, defying vocal opposition in the majority Catholic country from religious leaders, the rural heartland and the conservative opposition.
The French leader's top ministers approved the bill legalizing marriage and adoption for same-sex couples, sending it to the legislature for debate, only one day after two American states, Maine and Maryland, became the first in the U.S. to approve same-sex marriage in a popular vote.
Gay marriage has become a contentious issue in France, where Hollande made it a liberal cornerstone of his campaign, hoping it would create a clean break from his conservative predecessor. At the time, it appeared to have the backing of a majority of the population, but it has since turned into a politically sensitive issue.
Though France would become the 12th country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage if the bill passes, the country of 60 million people would become the biggest so far in terms of economic and diplomatic influence.
Polls show a majority of French support gay marriage, but it has divided the country's left and right, with lawmakers from the conservative UMP denouncing the Cabinet approval Wednesday.
"It's the end of the family, the end of children's development, the end of education. It's an enormous danger to the nation," UMP Senator Serge Dassault said on the radio show "France Culture."
In France, a prominent conservative and former prime minister, Francois Fillon, has opposed any gay marriage legislation, and he plans to run in this month's election for the UMP leadership.
Amid the clamoring, the Socialists have decided to delay the parliamentary debate about the bill until January, knowing that it risks being modified or diluted by legislators.
Elsewhere in Europe, gay politics has also come to the fore this week.
On Tuesday, Spain's Constitutional Court upheld the legality of the country's gay marriage law, which was approved in 2005 when the country's parliament was Socialist controlled.
The court rejected an appeal contending that marriage in the constitution means only the union of a man and woman. The county's top court voted 8-3 to dismiss the appeal filed by the conservative Popular Party.
The Popular Party took power late last year after the Socialists were ousted over their handling of the country's economic crisis.