Hundreds of thousands of people, including many families with children, came out to protest in Rome on Saturday about a government bill that included legal rights for homosexual couples.

The “Family Day” rally in St John Lateran piazza drew people from across Italy. The protest was organised by lay Catholic groups and family associations but not formally backed by the Vatican.

The legislation proposed by Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s centre-left Cabinet stops short of legalising gay marriage, as has occurred in Spain and other European countries.

It would give unmarried couples who live together to rights including hospital visits and inheritance.

“Living together is not family,” one of the protestors Anna Manara, 58, told the International Herald Tribune.

“Other models make it easier to be together and therefore end up making it less valuable.”

Figures vary widely as to the number of protesters on Saturday. Organisers claim it was as many as half a million while police at the piazza estimated about 250,000.

The demonstrators, including many children and grandparents were entertained throughout the day with singers, speakers, clowns, stilt walkers and even a video of the late John Paul II.

The “Family Day” has proven embarrassing for the government, with at least two ministers taking part, while other coalition politicians attending the counter-demonstration.

Many opposition leaders, including former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, attended the pro-family rally.

Pope Benedict XVI sent a clear message from Brazil, on the eve of the rally, saying popular culture promoted sexual immorality and destroyed the sanctity of marriage.

In a speech to the region’s bishops, he also decried what he called the “plague” of extramarital unions.

The pope said recently. “Only on the rock of marital love between a man and a woman, solid and faithful, can we build a community worthy of a human being.”

“The concept of traditional family is an anachronistic one,” said 33-year-old Alessandro Rotondi, speaking at the counter-demonstration in a piazza two miles from the pro-family rally.

He dismissed the idea that the bill would deal a blow to families, saying: “The problems for a family today have to do with job insecurity or difficulties in finding a home.”