CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) -- With the deputy president's signature on a new law, South Africa on Thursday became the first country in Africa and only the fifth in the world to legalize same-sex marriages.
The Civil Union Act entered into force on the eve of a December 1 deadline set by the Constitutional Court for the government to change its marriage legislation to ensure full equality for gays and lesbians.
Gay rights groups have welcomed the law, although they criticized provisions allowing clergy and civil marriage officers to turn away gay couples if their consciences prevented them from marrying them.
"There will be a huge response from same-sex couples who have waited such a long time for their relationship to be recognized," predicted Melanie Judge of the lesbian and gay project, OUT.
Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka signed the law in her capacity as acting president because President Thabo Mbeki is in Nigeria.
South Africa recognized the rights of gay people in the constitution adopted after apartheid ended in 1994, at a time when leaders were determined to bury all kinds of legal discrimination a thing. The constitution, the first in the world to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, provides a powerful legal tool for gay rights activists even though South Africa remains conservative on such issues...