HELSINKI (Reuters) - A group of Finnish lawmakers proposed an amendment on Wednesday that would legalize same-sex marriage, the strongest bid yet by politicians to allow such unions in the country - the most conservative of the Nordic nations.
Same-sex couples in Finland have had the right to registered partnerships since 2002, but the amendment would end the distinction between these unions and heterosexual marriages and give such couples equal rights to adopt children and share a surname.
Parliament sent the bill to a committee, bringing it a step closer to legislation, though it could still fail to win enough support to become law.
The amendment seeks only to redefine civil marriage and does not change the right of religious groups to their own definitions.
Seventy-six of the 200 members of parliament have signed the draft, and more lawmakers including Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen are expected to vote for it.
"I think this is a natural step forward from freeing homosexuality from criminality, as well as its categorization 40 years ago as a disease," European Affairs Minister Alexander Stubb told Reuters earlier.
Katainen has not actively backed the move because of an earlier promise to the Christian Democrats - a coalition partner - not to include it in the government's agenda.
The government needs the support of small parties like the Christian Democrats to keep a majority in parliament and ensure legislation, such as European Union bailouts, can be passed.
"I think marriage is between a man and a woman," Christian Democrat leader Paivi Rasanen, who is also interior minister, told Reuters. "The current legislation works fine."
James Hirvisaari, a lawmaker for the Finns Party which has criticised immigration and the government's pro-European policies, described the group's efforts as "Christianity and traditional family values being trampled on."
Lasse Mannisto, a key advocate of the amendment, said Finland was behind other Nordic countries - Sweden, Norway and Iceland - in securing rights for same-sex couples. Denmark is set to adopt a similar amendment next summer.
"It's odd to think that we should remain a Nordic backwater," Mannisto said. "Personally I think it's only a matter of time, if we think of this in the long run, and in the light of Finland formerly being a forerunner in advocating social equality."
There are currently around 1,600 same-sex couples registered in Finland.
(Reporting By Eero Vassinen; editing by Tim Pearce)