Brazil’s Supreme Court has voted overwhelmingly to give gay couples the right to civil unions.

The panel backed the measure 10-0, with one abstention.

The ruling does not grant gay couples the right to marry, but it will allow “stable” couples the right to benefits enjoyed by straight married people, relating to benefits, inheritance and tax.

They will be able to register their relationships with solicitors or public bodies. Religious and public ceremonies will not be allowed.

Justice Carlos Ayres Britto, who wrote the ruling, declared: “The freedom to pursue one’s own sexuality is part of an individual’s freedom of expression.”

Opponents had argued that Brazil’s constitution says that a “family entity” is “a stable union between a man and a woman”. But the Attorney-General’s office said that this was a definition, not a restriction.

Gay groups called the ruling historic and Claudio Nascimento, head of Rio de Janeiro state’s Gay, Lesbian and Transsexuals Committee, told O Globo: “The degree of civilisation of a country can be measured by the way people in a nation treat their homosexual community.”

Another gay rights group, Grupo Gay da Bahia, said that the ruling could help cut down hate crimes against LGBT people.

It claimed in January that 250 LGBT people were killed in hate crimes in 2010.

Elsewhere in Latin America, Argentina and Mexico City allow gay couples to marry.