By CARLOS SANTOSCOY
A bill that would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry in Malta is set for a final vote next week.
A preliminary vote taken on Wednesday showed widespread support.
Last month, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was sworn in for a second term in office after calling for a snap election in May. Muscat's Labour Party won a clear majority in parliament. Muscat campaigned on a promise to legalize marriage for gay couples. Other campaign pledges included lower taxes and higher pensions.
“Malta wants to keep leading on LGBT issues and civil liberties, to serve as a model for the rest of the world,” Muscat recently told the BBC.
Since 2014 Malta has recognized gay couples with civil unions. According to various reports, same-sex couples will be able to marry in Malta before the end of July.
The Constitution of Malta establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion and 88.6% of citizens identify as Catholic. Despite the Catholic hierarchy's opposition to marriage equality, support has increased dramatically in the last decade. Polling in 2006 found overwhelming (73%) opposition to same-sex marriage among Maltese. The same Eurobarometer survey in 2015 found majority (65%) support.
The Mediterranean island nation is the European Union's smallest, with a population of 400,000. According to NBC News, Malta's economy is one of the strongest in the 19-member euro zone.