At the urging of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who won his second-straight term in a snap election last month, the Marriage Equality Bill is the first law being debated by the country’s new parliament, which convened for its first sitting on Monday. Muscat, leader of the center-left Labour Party, has vowed to expedite the legalization process, calling marriage equality a top priority for his government.
“The first law that we are going to put on the agenda — and I hope that it is approved as quickly as possible — is that of the Marriage Equality Bill,” said Muscat after his swearing-in ceremony on June 5, according to a translation by the website LifeSiteNews. “We will make sure that it will be the first law to be placed on the agenda of the parliament, and that it is concluded.”
Though labeled an equality “bill,” Malta’s parliament is not mulling a single law but a host of changes to existing legislation including the Marriage Act, the Criminal Code and the Civil Code. As the Times of Malta explained, the aim of the bill is to “’modernize the institution of marriage’ so that all consenting adult couples would have the right to enter into marriage.” This will include replacing references of “husband,” “wife,” “mother” and “father” in existing laws with gender-neutral terms like “spouse” and “parent.”
“Malta wants to keep leading on LGBT issues and civil liberties, to serve as a model for the rest of the world,” Muscat told the BBC this week.
The bill is expected to be unanimously approved, reported Malta Today. Simon Busuttil, the center-right Nationalist Party leader who lost to Muscat by a landslide in the recent election, said last week that his party would support the new legislation.
When it comes to social and sexual rights, Malta is a paradox. A country that’s 98 percent Catholic, it only legalized divorce in 2011 ― and even then, to the chagrin of many government and religious leaders. The island nation that’s situated between Sicily and the North African coast remains the only country in the European Union where abortion is banned under all circumstances.
Yet, when it comes to LGBTQ rights, Malta has emerged as a European leader.
In 2014, the Maltese government passed a law recognizing same-sex civil unions, including the right of gay couples to adopt. Last year, Malta became the first European country to make gay conversion therapy illegal, deeming it to be a “deceptive and harmful” act.
“Life has changed a lot for gay people in Malta over the past two years,” Russell Sammut, a Maltese gay rights advocate, told Time magazine in December. “Up until 2014 we had no rights here, but once civil unions were enacted people changed their attitudes overnight. Everyone is afraid of the unknown, but now they’ve seen there’s no threat to society, they’re fine with same-sex partnerships.”
A poll conducted last year by the Malta Independent found most Maltese people in support of marriage equality. The paper said 61 percent of poll respondents were in favor of gay marriage.