PARIS — If France's new Socialist government has its way, mothers and fathers will cease to exist — in legal papers, that is.
Legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage and give homosexual couples the right to adopt children also would replace the terms "mother" and "father" with "parent 1" and "parent 2" in all legal documents, including birth certificates.
The proposal has outraged France's religious establishment and triggered a wave of criticism from many who say such changes to French law should be put to a public vote.
"A referendum must be held to allow a real debate," Dominique Rey, Roman Catholic bishop of the southern region of Frejus-Toulon, said in an interview with online news outlet Nouvelles de France.
"A majority of the population agrees with the traditional view of marriage," he said, warning against opening a "Pandora's box" and "questioning the natural order of things."
Justice Minister Christiane Taubira said the legislation, which is expected to be introduced in Parliament this month, is needed to "secularize the bond of marriage" and allow same-sex couples to adopt children under the same conditions as heterosexual couples.
The bill also would allow one partner in a same-sex marriage to adopt the child of his or her spouse.
Under current law, a person in a homosexual relationship or an unmarried heterosexual relationship can adopt a child only as a single parent and only the adoptive parent has legal rights over the child.
Government officials say the French already have expressed themselves on the issue by electing Francois Hollande as president in May. The measure was part of his campaign platform.
"Have we ever hid our determination to authorize marriage for all as well as to adopt?" government spokeswoman Najat Valaud-Belkacem said. "No, on the contrary, we had [openly] put it forward."
Referring to Bishop Rey's call for a nationwide vote on the issue, Ms. Valaud-Belkacem said, "In a certain manner, a referendum already took place four months ago, during the presidential campaign."
In a poll released Thursday by the French Institute of Public Opinion, 61 percent of respondents said they favored same-sex marriage, but only 48 percent said they backed adoption by homosexual couples.
The Catholic Church is defiant on the issue. After a meeting with Interior Minister Manuel Valls, France's senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, warned that "same-sex marriages would pave the way for polygamy and incest.
"It would amount to a breakdown in society," the cardinal said. "The consequences could be countless. Afterwards, they will want to create couples with three or four members. After that, one day maybe, the taboo of incest will fall."
Reacting to the church official's remarks, Bertrand Delanoe, the Socialist mayor of Paris and one of France's few openly gay politicians, told French radio Europe1 that Cardinal Barbarin clearly "flipped his lid."
"It is very shocking and even surprising coming from him because I consider him a wise man," Mr. Delanoe said. "I don't know what came over him, and what he said was downright ugly."
Over the past few decades, French officials increasingly have moved to secularize national law to rid it of any traces of religion. The movement often has led to heated confrontations between the church and state in the traditionally Catholic country.
However, the upcoming legislation has been subject to criticism from other quarters of society.
Francois Lebel, the conservative mayor of a district of Paris, announced that he would refuse to preside over homosexual marriages if the bill becomes law. In France, mayors and deputy mayors are the main officiators at weddings.
Mr. Lebel, who officiated the marriage of then-President Nicolas Sarkozy and supermodel/singer Carla Bruni in 2008, said in a recent editorial that he would not officiate "personally, at any marriage of this nature."
"If the age-old taboo on heterosexual marriages is swept away, who and what will stop other taboos from going the same way?" he wrote. "How could we tomorrow stop polygamy in France, a rule which is only a taboo in Western civilization?"
Mr. Lebel also suggested that the bill could open the way for incest, as well as pedophilia and the marriage of minors. He added that, while he will not officiate the marriage of gay couples, his "town hall will, of course, conform to the law."