Finland takes first step towards legalising gay marriage

Helsinki (AFP) - Finland's parliament voted in favour of same-sex marriage in a victory for campaigners who gathered thousands of signatures to force parliament to examine the issue.

The Finnish legislature approved the "citizens' initiative" proposal by 105 votes to 92, paving the way for a gender-neutral marriage law in the only Nordic country where gay marriage is not legal.

Anna Saarela, who led the campaign, told AFP that she felt "pure joy" after the vote.

"Finland is the last Nordic country where homosexual couples are not allowed to marry. It's a question of human rights," she said.

While the vote will not automatically result in a change of law, it launches the process for parliament to examine the issue.

The next step would involve a parliamentary committee, which would have to approve the proposed change before it goes to parliament for a final vote.

Saarela said that there was "no doubt" that it would go through.

Finland's Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, who supported the initiative, described it as an example of people power.

"It's a sign of civic activism and indicates that Finnish law is heading in the same direction as the rest of the Nordics and the Western world on this sensitive and difficult question," he told the YLE public broadcaster.

The initiative got the support of most lawmakers from the conservative and the social democratic parties, members of the governing coalition.

All members of the populist and eurosceptic The Finns Party except one voted against, as did most of the agrarian Centre Party.

The Greens unanimously voted in favour of the initiative.

Although the proposal was rejected twice by the parliament's legal committee, an intense campaign in recent weeks helped increase support to bring Finland in line with nearly a dozen European countries.

But some lawmakers were still deeply opposed.

"This is a catastrophe for Finland," said Pentti Oinonen, a member of parliament for The Finns Party, which opposed the change. "Old traditions and values have been totally trampled on."

The citizens initiative campaign which began in 2013 collected 166,851 signatures, more than three times the 50,000 required by Finnish law to force the parliament to consider the proposal.

Finland has recognised same-sex partnerships since 2002.

The new marriage law, if approved, is not expected to come into force before 2016.