A bill to ban bullfighting in the Spanish region of Catalonia cleared its first hurdle Friday as legislators mulled a measure to reject a cultural pillar of traditional Spain.

Catalans and their regional capital, Barcelona, consider themselves a country within a country, with their own language and substantial self-rule. Analysts agree that the bill to ban bullfighting is winning support, in part, because of the appeal of outlawing an iconic Spanish sport.

The bill began as a petition by grassroots activists who collected 180,000 signatures against the bloodshed and killing of bullfighting.

Lawmakers in the Catalan regional parliament voted 67-59 Friday to elevate the bill for debate in few months' time.

If approved, Catalonia would become the second Spanish region to ban bullfighting. The Canary Islands, off Morocco's coast, did so in 1991.

Before Friday's vote, lawmakers from Catalan nationalist and environmentalist parties united behind the proposed ban, while right-wing opposition led by the Popular Party opposed it. Other parties let their members vote either way.

The issue proved so sensitive and divisive that Friday's voting was kept secret, a rarity in the Catalan legislature. Some lawmakers covered their hands with newspapers as they pushed electronic voting buttons at their desks.

Socialist Party lawmaker David Perez, who supports bullfighting, said the sport's fans may be a minority in Catalonia but their passions should be tolerated.

He said it was futile for Catalan nationalists to reject the ancient tradition as another way of distancing Catalonia from the rest of Spain.

"Some think that by banning bullfighting we will be less Spanish. They are wrong," Perez said.

Bullfighting opponent Joan Puigcerdos of the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia insisted that the bill was strictly about stopping cruelty to animals, not asserting independence.

"Traditions must contribute positive value," he said.

Barcelona-based pollster Josefina Elias predicted that the proposed ban would ultimately lose support, partly because Catalonia depends heavily on tourists, some of whom want to see bullfights.

Elias also suggested that some lawmakers wanted to take a provocative stand Friday but would vote for the status quo when the bill faces a final verdict.

"We like to say: Look how advanced Catalonia is. Look how different we are," Elias said.

Bullfighting in Catalonia has declined in popularity over decades. Barcelona now has the region's only functioning bull ring. In 1994 the city symbolically declared itself an anti-bullfighting city.

Throughout Spain, bullfighting is no longer the powerful draw it was a few generations ago, when matadors were top-flight celebrities. Today's crowds at bull rings are largely middle-aged, while younger generations find their heroes on the football field or concert stage.