French President Francois Hollande’s government has approved a bill to legalise equal marriage and allow gay couples to adopt.

The reform, opposed by more than 1,000 mayors and France’s Catholic Church, will be debated by parliament in January 2013.

The French cabinet approved the bill on Wednesday as two American states – Maine and Maryland – became the first in the US to sanction equal marriage in a popular vote.

France already allows civil unions, but it was a campaign pledge of President Hollande to introduce marriage rights for gay couples.

President Hollande told his cabinet that the bill would mean “progress not only for individuals but for the whole of society”.

Polls show a majority of French voters support marriage equality, but it has divided the country’s left and right, with lawmakers from the conservative UMP denouncing the measure.

“It’s the end of the family, the end of children’s development, the end of education. It’s an enormous danger to the nation,” UMP Senator Serge Dassault said on the radio show France Culture on Wednesday.

Last week, President Hollande conceded that the religious opponents of his equal marriage plans were proving to be “tough” to deal with.

The embattled French leader, whose popularity has plunged since taking office six months ago, made the comment to Jean-Luc Romero, one of the country’s prominent gay politicians, during a ceremony at the Elysee Palace.