BY LIBARDO CARDONA, ASSOCIATED PRESS
BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia got its first legalized same-sex union Wednesday when a judge sanctioned the partnership of two men who have been a couple for two decades.
The newly legalized couple cheered the ceremony as a marriage, although experts cautioned that a high court ruling that deemed the union legal did not make it the equivalent of marriage.
"We are civilly married," Gonzalo Ruiz, 44, told The Associated Press just after ceremony with his partner, Carlos Hernando Rivera, 57.
The ceremony follows Congress' failure in April to pass a law setting up a legal framework for civil unions. A 2011 order from the Constitutional Court had ordered legislators to pass a law granting marriage equality to gay couples by June 20, 2013, or else such couple would be allowed to join in civil unions before judges.
A previous ruling by the high court had allowed same-sex couples in Colombia to enjoy since 2007 many of the benefits of marriage, including inheritance, pensions and health and death benefits.
"They entered as bachelors and exited married," Marcela Sanchez, director of Colombia Diversa, an LGBT-rights group, said after about 100 guests celebrated the union by throwing rice at the couple.
However, former Constitutional Court president, Carlos Gaviria, said that while the contract that Judge Carmen Lucia Rodriguez sanctioned between Rivera and Ruiz is a kind of civil matrimony, it cannot legally be called marriage.
"It is an unnamed contract that is not matrimony," he said.
Sanchez and other activists want same-sex marriage to be enshrined in Colombian law so gay couples can, for one, legally adopt.
The Roman Catholic Church and the office of the Public Attorney, which nominally represents civil society, are among institutions that oppose it.
Evan Wolfson of the U.S.-based group Freedom To Marry said that while Wednesday's ceremony is a step forward, civil unions are not enough.
"Legal protections, whether through civil union or partnership, are better than no legal protections — but fall far short of the full measure of security, clarity, and dignity, the tangible and intangible meanings, that come with marriage itself," he said in an email.
In Latin America, gay marriage is legal only in the countries of Argentina and Uruguay and in Mexico City.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru contributed to this report.