A top judicial panel in Brazil has cleared the way for same-sex marriage in the country, ruling that gay couples could not be denied marriage licenses.
The National Council of Justice, which oversees the Brazilian judicial system and is headed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, said on Tuesday that government offices that issue marriage licenses had no standing to reject gay couples.
"This is the equivalent of authorising homosexual marriage in Brazil," said Raquel Pereira de Castro Araujo, head of the human rights committee of the Brazilian bar association.
The decision comes just over two months before Pope Francis attends World Youth Day in Brazil, the country with the most Catholics in the world - 123 million of its 194 million inhabitants.
The Brazilian Congress, where a strong religious faction opposes same-sex marriage, has not yet approved a law legalising gay marriages.
The council's decisions are subject to appeal before the Supreme Court.
But Joaquim Barbosa, the Supreme Court chief justice, said there was no reason for the government's marriage licensing offices to wait for the Congress to pass a law authorising same-sex marriage before extending the right to gays.
He noted that the Supreme Court in 2011 recognised stable homosexual unions, ruling that the constitution guaranteed them the same rights as heterosexual couples.
Some offices have granted marriage licenses to gay couples and others have not. While some state courts have recognised same-sex marriages, the council's decision was the first to set a national standard.
The ruling was welcomed by rights activists in Rio de Janeiro.
"The decision is timely and is the result of a long struggle of organized social movements," said Marjori Machi, president of the Rio de Janeiro Association of Transvestite and Transsexual People (ASTRA-RIO).
"This will reduce legal procedures and ensures more equality to Brazilian citizens. Before this there were first and second class citizens. Now all families will be respected," Machi told AFP news agency.