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Gay marriages set to go Dutch

The Hague (AP) - In a significant step towards recognising gay marriages, the Dutch government plans to give same-sex couples almost identical rights to married people, a spokeswoman said yesterday.

A proposed new law will allow homosexual couples to register their relationship with their local municipality in a legally binding process, the justice ministry said. The only major difference is that the registered same-sex couples will not be allowed to adopt children, as the arrangement is still being referred to as a "registration" and not a marriage.

A justice spokesman insisted that "there is not very much difference" between the proposed system and a traditional marriage, and said the government is looking into recognition of same-sex marriages.

The proposal has broad backing in parliament and is expected to become law in January 1998. But a prominent gay organisation says it will not stop campaigning until they gain the right to adoption.

"So what you should do if you want to adopt a child is lie about your relationship. It is ridiculous," said Sjoerd Beumer, of the Dutch Federation for the Integration of Homosexuality.

Registration will, however, give the couple the same pension, social security and inheritance rights as a married couple and it will enforce alimony payments if a couple splits.

Many gay couples already sign "partnership contracts" which include similar rights to those in the government's proposal, but those contracts do not carry the weight of law.

On Tuesday, a judge in Honolulu ordered Hawaii to begin issuing gay couples with marriage licences - the first such ruling by a judge in the United States. However, President Bill Clinton has signed a law that says the federal government will not recognise gay marriages, and which allows states to refuse to recognise such unions.