SAO PAULO -- Brazil's high court ruled that same-sex civil unions must be recognized, a decision welcomed as a watershed by gay activists who also hope it will cool rising violence against homosexuals in Latin America's most populous nation.
The ruling, however, stopped short of legalizing gay marriage in Brazil, which has more Roman Catholics than any other country. The Catholic Church fought the measure.
In a vote late Thursday, all but one of the 11 Supreme Court justices backed civil union rights for same-sex couple. One justice abstained.
The court ruled that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as heterosexual pairs when it comes to alimony, retirement benefits of a partner who dies and inheritances, among other issues.
In Latin America, gay marriage is legal only in Argentina and Mexico City.
Same-sex civil unions granting some rights to homosexual couples are legal in Uruguay and in some states of Mexico outside the capital. Colombia's Constitutional Court has granted same-sex couples inheritance rights and allowed them to add their partners to health insurance plans.
Brazil's ruling sets a judicial precedent that must be honored by all public institutions, including notary publics where civil unions must be registered.
"This is a historic moment for all Brazilians, not just homosexuals. This judgment will change everything for us in society – and for the better," said Marcelo Cerqueira with the gay rights group Grupo Gay da Bahia. "Gays, lesbians and transsexuals will be recognized as being more human. We'll be more accepted by having our rights honored."
Grupo Gay da Bahia said in a recent report that 260 gays were murdered in 2010 in Brazil, up 113 percent from five years ago, including recent high-profile cases that made headlines.
On April 5, the body of 16-year-old girl was found in a remote area of Brazil's Goias state. The father and brother of her teenage girlfriend were arrested. Less than two weeks later, security cameras captured the beating death of a 24-year-old transvestite in northeastern Paraiba state.
Gay activist Cerqueira said he hoped the ruling would be the start of an end to such violence.
"This ruling will help. The violence comes about because of impunity for those who commit it," Cerqueira said. "When a country judges a case like this in favor of us, it will have an impact across the judicial and law enforcement sectors."
The request for the Supreme Court to recognize civil unions came two years ago from the Brazilian attorney general's office, largely because legislation that would give same-sex couples the rights enjoyed by married heterosexual couples has been stalled in Congress for more than a decade.
Brazil's constitution defines a "family entity" as "a stable union between a man and a woman." But the attorney general's office argued the clause is only a definition and not a limitation, and thus the charter does not say a stable union can "only" be between a man and a woman.
The attorney general also argued that the constitution does not specifically forbid a civil union between people of the same sex – and that failing to recognize same-sex unions violates the charter's defenses of human dignity and equality.
A lawyer representing Brazil's National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, Jose Sarubbi de Oliveira, argued to the court that the constitution recognizes only a legal partnership between a man and a woman and that the justices would be wrongly interpreting the document to rule otherwise.
Oliveira said the document's lack of an explicit statement that a family partnership is limited to those between a man and a woman did not mean that "every type of union has to be considered."
Ralph Lichota, a lawyer representing religious groups, told the court the legal recognition of same-sex couples should be left in the hands citizens.
"Power emanates from the people, and the Brazilian people are Christian," he said. "God created marriage when he created Adam and Eve. Just like the Brazilian people aren't ready to legalize marijuana, like they're aren't prepared to have abortion, we're not ready for homosexual marriage."
Luis Roberto Barroso, a law professor at Rio de Janeiro State University, argued in a friend-of-the-court appearance before the justices that allowing same-sex civil unions would mean "overcoming historical discrimination."
"The implications of a homosexual relationship are the same as those of a heterosexual one. To not recognize that is to say that the affection they (gays) have has less value and can be disrespected," said Barroso.
Associated Press writer Marco Sibaja in Brasilia contributed to this report.