By Hilary White

VIENNA, November 20, 2009 ( – The Austrian Catholic bishops have reacted mildly to a move by the government to bring forward a bill that will allow same-sex partners to register their domestic arrangements in the country's municipal or magistrate's offices.

The chairman of the Austrian Bishop's Conference, Vienna's archbishop, Christoph Schönborn, praised the bill for not creating a direct equivalence between registered partnerships and marriage. He added, however, that this new law will have “unforeseeable consequences for all of society.”

“The present draft provides the basis for a development that will ultimately lead to the complete equality of 'registered partnerships' with traditional marriages,” the bishops' press release said.

The Austrian government approved the bill after a lengthy debate between liberal and conservative factions in the coalition government that was concluded when the conservative People's Party agreed to allow homosexuals to register as long as there was no official ceremony allowed. The bill will be voted by the parliament before the end of 2009.

It will allow registered homosexual partners to enjoy the same rights and privileges as natural couples with regards to pensions and alimony but does not allow homosexuals to adopt children or receive artificial insemination.

Conservative Interior Minister Maria Fekter welcomed the compromise on Tuesday, “We sought a realistic solution and this was (registration at) the local authority.”

Austria has provided some rights for de facto same-sex unions since 2003, following a decision of the European Court of Human Rights. In February 2009, Austria's Interior Minister Dr. Maria Fekter met with a delegation of homosexualist activists and promised that the government would issue the bill allowing registered partnerships to be introduced and enacted in autumn 2009 and come into effect on 1 January 2010.

Homosexualist activists have pointed out that the bill excludes same-sex partners from 37 specific rights and protections enjoyed by heterosexual married couples. Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek, the minister for women's affairs who had pushed for civil registry ceremonies, called the bill an “unfinished document” that is an “important first step” and indicated that future amendments would furnish more of the lobby's goals.