ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi rejected on Friday the Roman Catholic Church's interference in a parliamentary debate on legislation that offers homosexual couples legal recognition and limited adoption rights.
Renzi spoke a day after the head of the Italian bishops' conference, Angelo Bagnasco, urged the upper house Senate to allow secret balloting when it votes on the bill, arguing this would allow lawmakers to follow their conscience.
Italy is the only major Western country that has not yet recognised gay civil unions.
"Parliament decides whether or not to allow secret votes ... not the head of the bishops' conference," Renzi said during an interview with RAI state radio.
"What is there to fear from two people who love each other? Why not give these rights to two people who love each other? The majority of the country is clearly in favour of it."
Some members of Renzi's ruling centre-left coalition and of his own party have said they oppose aspects of the legislation, such as allowing unmarried couples to adopt each other's children.
Among other things, the bill would allow unmarried couples - heterosexual as well as homosexual - to inherit their partner's pension. If the Senate approves the bill, it will go to the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, for final approval.
Allowing a secret ballot would shield lawmakers from the wrath of party leaders if they fail to toe their line and could sabotage the legislation, on which there will be number of votes on amendments proposed by the opposition.
The Catholic Church retains considerable influence in Italy and hundreds of thousands of Italians have protested against the legislation, though there have also been large rallies in favour.
Pope Francis appeared to weigh into the debate on gay rights last month, defending traditional marriage as "the family God wants".
Latest opinion polls say that 70 percent of Italians believe same sex couples should be granted legal protection, such as inheritance rights. However, only some 24 percent think gay couples should be granted any adoption rights.
Italy has tried unsuccessfully to introduce similar legislation several times since the 1980s.
Reporting by Steve Scherer and Massimiliano Di Giorgio; Editing by Gareth Jones