HARTFORD, Conn. – The state House passed legislation Wednesday that would make Connecticut (search) the second state to establish same-sex civil unions, and the first to do it without a court order.
Addressing concerns raised by Gov. M. Jodi Rell (search), the House amended the bill to define marriage as being between one man and one woman. That means the Senate, which overwhelmingly approved the bill last week, would need to approve the amended version before it reaches the governor's desk.
Vermont has approved civil unions and Massachusetts (search) has gay marriage, but those changes came only after same-sex couples brought lawsuits.
The Connecticut bill, approved 85-63 by the House, would give same-sex couples all the rights and privileges of marriage, but they would not be eligible to receive marriage licenses. Critics said they saw no real difference between civil unions and marriage, but proponents stressed that it would not affect the state's marriage laws.
"The public policy of this state could not be clearer. Marriage is the union of one man and one woman," said Democrat Rep. Michael Lawlor, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee.
While some proponents said the bill was a key step toward providing civil rights for same-sex couples, others were disappointed it was amended with the marriage definition.
"In the end, they have completely accepted and put into law the second-class status of gay and lesbian families in Connecticut," said Mary Bonauto, a Boston lawyer who led a successful fight for same-sex marriage rights in neighboring Massachusetts. "That is a very bitter pill to swallow."
Rell, a Republican, said she would sign the amended bill if the Senate passes it.
"The House bill sends an unambiguous message about our commitment to fight discrimination, promote civil rights and preserve the traditional institution of marriage," she said.
Rell had called for the amendment defining marriage even though Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal had said the earlier bill "emphatically, unequivocally, without a doubt" would not permit same-sex marriages.
Sen. Andrew McDonald, one of the bill's chief proponents, called the amendment "political comfort food" for people uncomfortable with gay marriage. The Democrat said he expected the Senate would take up the bill in about a week.
Opponents held out hope of killing the bill. A few hundred people gathered on the steps of the Capitol early Wednesday morning for a rally aimed at changing lawmakers' minds.
As the crowd chanted a prayer in unison, Jan Wetherell balanced a giant painted portrait of the Virgin Mary on his head. The Roman Catholic has been praying every day that the bill would be defeated.
"It's like Mother Teresa said: God doesn't ask us to be successful, only faithful," he said.
Also Wednesday, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski said he will push for a law allowing gay couples to form civil unions, and the Oregon Supreme Court said it will rule Thursday on marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples last year. Multnomah County issued nearly 3,000 such licenses before a judge ordered it to stop.