MOSCOW Police broke up a "kiss-in" protest by gay activists who scuffled with Russian Orthodox Christians outside parliament on Friday before it considered a law banning the promotion of homosexuality.
Backers say the law will protect children against "homosexual propaganda" in the media and at public events, but critics say President Vladimir Putin hopes it will consolidate support for him following the biggest protests since he won power in 2000.
Police said about 20 people were detained outside the State Duma, the lower house, after minor scuffles broke out between rival groups of supporters and opponents of the law.
The supporters, some of them holding Russian Orthodox icons or crosses, cheered and threw eggs as police hauled away protesters who started kissing. One gay activist was splashed with green paint, witnesses said.
If approved by the two houses of parliament, and signed by Putin, the law would ban the promotion of gay events across Russia and impose fines on the organisers.
But the law has widened rifts in a country already divided by a year of rallies against Putin which, although they have dwindled in the last few months, have undermined his image as a leader who can unite and protect all Russians.
Putin's critics say the law is the latest in a series of legislative moves intended to crack down on the opposition or appeal to traditional Russian values to boost the former KGB spy's ratings.
Public approval for Putin, who is now 60, stood in January at 62 percent, the lowest level since June 2000, an independent pollster said on Thursday.
Veteran human rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva said the draft law was "medieval" and was probably meant as a pretext to outlaw gay rights marches.
"Animosity towards gays and lesbians is widespread in society, and the Duma, which has approved a number of unpopular laws, hopes it can win some popularity with an anti-gay law," she told Reuters.
"It is relying on the ignorance of people who think homosexuality is some sort of distortion ... in another brutal tightening of legislation," she said.
PUTIN AND THE CHURCH
Supporters of the law welcome moves that would allow the banning of gay rights marches and complain about television and radio programmes which they say show support for gay couples.
"Such widespread propaganda of homosexuality negatively affects the formation of a child's personality, blurs its ideas of the family as the union of a man and woman, and in fact creates grounds for limiting the freedom of choice of sexual preferences when it grows up," the law's backers said in a written defence of the legislation.
Putin, who has criticised gays for failing to help reverse Russia's population decline, has increasingly looked for support among conservative constituencies and particularly the church to offset his falling support.
The Russian Orthodox Church, resurgent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, has spoken out against homosexuality. Putin drew closer to the clergy during the trial and sentencing this summer of three members of the Pussy Riot punk band over their protest in the country's main cathedral.
Anti-gay propaganda laws are already in place in Arkhangelsk, Novosibirsk and St Petersburg, Putin's home city, where it was used unsuccessfully to sue American singer Madonna for $10 million for promoting gay love during a concert last year.
Although a court rejected that case, a local politician from Putin's ruling Untied Russia party has said he is taking similar action against another singer, Lady Gaga, who is also a defender of lesbian and gay rights.
Homosexuality, punished with jail terms in the Soviet Union, was decriminalised in Russia in 1993, but much of the gay community remains underground and prejudice runs deep.
"This draft law is one of the most blatant of the attacks on civil rights for Russian citizens in recent months," gay rights campaigning group All Out said in a statement.
"The crackdown has extended across all forms of civil liberties, including freedom of speech and expression."
In Moscow, city authorities have repeatedly declined permission to stage gay parades and gay rights allies have often ended in arrests and clashes with anti-gay activists.
(Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Timothy Heritage)