Uruguay lawmakers are opening the way for gay and lesbian couples to adopt children, making it the first Latin American country to pass the controversial law.

Uruguayan lawmakers voted to extend adoption rights to gay couples yesterday, the latest measure relaxing laws on homosexuality to draw criticism from Church leaders in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.

Members of Congress said the law makes Uruguay the first Latin American country to let gay couples adopt.

The measure, which must still be signed by President Tabare Vazquez, also allows unmarried couples to adopt for the first time.

Senator Margarita Percovich of the leftist party said the government had to focus on choosing good families for the children and put aside their marriage status.

'I would say the central point is still selecting the families, no matter if they are married or not. A lot of attention has been put on giving equal adoption rights to couple united through civil marriages or through matrimony,' she said.

Church leaders criticised the new adoption law and the centre-right Partido Nacional voted against it.

Senator Francisco Gallinal of the Partido Nacional said the law would jeopardise the child's free will.

'In a country where there are very few births and as a consequence very few adoptions, establishing the possibility of a child to be adopted by same-sex couples is conditioning the child's free will once he is able to use his reason,' he said.

Gay people are allowed to adopt under Uruguayan law, but as individuals rather than jointly as a couple. Gay marriage remains illegal.

Earlier in the week, Diego Sempol of gay rights group Ovejas Negras (Black Sheep) said the law was a significant step towards recognising gay rights.

'This law is a significant step towards the recognition of the rights of gay couples and the rights of children in terms of sexual diversity. Why? Because in reality, the Parliament is officially legalising and regulating situations that happen in society very frequently and had no type of protection,' he said.

Archbishop Nicolas Cotugno criticised the law and said the Catholic Church did not recognise gay couples as a family.

'The Church cannot accept a family made up of two people of the same sex. These are people who unite and live their life together, but the Church does not consider that a family,' he said.

He added that children had to be raised carefully.

'A child is not something you make. I don't want to be too harsh in my comment, but with all due respect, a child is not a pet', he said.

Uruguay, a small South American nation with a secular state structure, passed a law in late 2007 to permit gay couples have so-called civil unions that grant similar rights as marriage.

Earlier this year the centre-left government also lifted a ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces.