HARTFORD, Conn. – Connecticut's legislature moved closer to legalizing civil unions for same-sex couples, as a key panel approved a measure that could make it the first state in the country to recognize gay unions through legislative action rather than court order.
The legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee voted 25-13 to pass a bill Wednesday that would give gay and lesbian couples the same state rights as married heterosexuals, except for the right to obtain a marriage license.
Proponents said Thursday the civil unions (search) measure has bipartisan support among lawmakers and will likely pass the House and Senate by early June, when the session ends.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell (search), a Republican, has not said whether she would sign the bill, saying she would study the precise wording if it comes to her desk.
Rell has said she is in favor of civil rights for same-sex couples (search) but believes marriage is between a man and a woman.
Vermont is the only state that allows civil unions for same-sex couples, following a ruling by the Vermont Supreme Court in 2000. Massachusetts' high court went one step further when it legalized gay marriage last year.
Some gay rights advocates hailed the committee vote, but many expressed disappointment that the measure would not approve same-sex marriage.
"I think there's a strong feeling among legislators that recognizes the importance and validity of same-sex couples and the need to rectify what is a very, very unjust situation right now," said Cyd Sloteroff, who watched the vote with her partner of nearly 17 years.
However, Anne Stanback, president of Love Makes a Family (search), said civil unions legislation "would write second-class citizenship into our law."
Opponents of civil unions and gay marriage warned that if the bill becomes law, same-sex couples could go to the courts and argue that the legislature intended to recognize gay marriage.
"My fear is that people will see this as a compromise and clearly it is not a compromise," said Marie Hilliard, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference (search). "This is same-sex marriage by another name."
Some legislators on the panel agreed. Republican Rep. William Hamzy (search), chairman of the state Republicans, said there is really no meaningful difference between civil unions and marriage.
"If you call it a different name, I guess that makes some people feel more comfortable," he said. "But the end result is identical."
After the civil union bill passed, some opponents unsuccessfully attempted to amend it to require the state to recognize marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Another proposal to amend the state constitution with similar language also died.