The Brazilian National Council of Justice has cleared the way for same-sex marriage across the country by ruling that gay couples can not be denied the right to marry.

The council, headed by the chief justice of the Brazilian Supreme Court said that the civil authorities have no right to reject same-sex couples from applying for marriage licenses.

But Supreme Court Chief Justice Joaquim Barbosa said there was no reason to wait for Brazil’s Congress to pass a new law on same-sex marriage.

“This is the equivalent of authorising homosexual marriage in Brazil,” Raquel Pereira de Castro Araujo, head of the human rights committee of the Brazilian bar association told the AFP news agency.

Carlos Magno Fonseca, president of the Brazilian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Association said: “This is a major step that will ensure equality among heterosexual and homosexual couples.”

Brazil is the largest Catholic country on earth, it joins fellow Catholic states Spain and Portugal in making same-sex marriage legal.

In 2011, the federal Supreme Court ruled that all gay couples in Brazil should have the right to enter into civil unions but stopped short of a same-sex marriages. The ruling gave “stable” couples the right to benefits enjoyed by straight married people, relating to benefits, inheritance and tax.

Over the past two years, courts in individual Brazilian states have made it legal for same-sex couples in civil unions to apply to have their relationships recognised as marriages.

Earlier today, the British Minister for Equality, Maria Miller said that it was surprising that the UK was behind on same-sex marriage. She said: “It is surprising that other countries have done this [introduced same-sex marriage] as far back as 2001. Given our extremely strong record on equality and human rights, it is surprising that is for so many years that this hasn’t been considered.”