Ireland's lawmakers have opened debate on a bill to grant marriage-style rights to gay couples, a social milestone in a country long observant of Roman Catholic opposition to homosexuality.

Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said Thursday that the Civil Partnerships Bill would give gay couples the same rights as married heterosexual couples to questions of inheritance, medical care and access to state benefits — and also the same right to demand financial support from wealthier partners when relationships fail.

The bill faces opposition from a minority of lawmakers in the ruling Fianna Fail party. But its passage into law this month appears assured because of strong backing by opposition parties.

Homosexuality was defined as a criminal offense in Ireland until 1993.