A poll has revealed that an overwhelming majority of Italians approve of the government’s proposed legislation that will grant some rights to unmarried couples.

Last week the Cabinet unanimously approved the new legislation, which also grants rights to unmarried heterosexual couples.

Now a survey for newspaper La Repubblica has found strong support for the measures.

67% of practising Catholics support protections for heterosexual co-habitees, a number which falls to 35% who think gay and lesbians should get legal protection.

Overall, 80% of Italians are in favour.

The nine-party left-of-centre coalition of Prime Minister Romano Prodi has spent months tussling over the new bill.

Couples will be able to formally register with their local authority, and will have rights over property and inheritance. They will also have the right to visit their partner in hospital.

The poll results will be a blow for the Vatican. They have been heavy-handed in their approach, asking Catholics MPs to make a personal commitment to “protect” marriage.

It seems that their flock disagree.

Former Italian president Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, 88, who attends church on a daily basis, told the press that the Church should not interfere.

“Should such an intervention take place … it would destroy the freedom and dignity of Catholic lawmakers in parliament,” he told la Repubblica.

“A rigid attitude by the Church would be really damaging.”

The new bill is expected to have a tough passage through the Italian parliament even without Church interference.

The coalition has a healthy majority in the lower house, but the bill could fall in the Senate.

Uniquely in Europe, both houses in Italy’s bicameral parliamentary system have equal power.

Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the largest opposition party, Forza Italia, said his MPs could have a free vote on the issue.

But this week attacked the proposed bill.

“It creates exactly what we didn’t want, a sort of ‘second division’ marriage which devalues the meaning of family,” he said on Monday, according to Reuters.

“And it’s certainly a preface to allowing same-sex couples to adopt,” he added.