Connecticut on Wednesday became the second state to offer civil unions (search) to gay couples — and the first to do so without being forced by the courts.

About an hour after the state Senate sent her the legislation, Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell (search) signed into law a bill that will afford same-sex couples in Connecticut many of the rights and privileges of married couples.

"The vote we cast today will reverberate around the country and it will send a wave of hope to many people, to thousands of people across the country," said Sen. Andrew McDonald (search), who is gay.

The state House passed the measure last week but amended it to define marriage under Connecticut law as between one man and one woman. The Senate approved the amended bill Wednesday 26-8. The law takes effect Oct. 1.

"I have said all along that I believe in no discrimination of any kind and I think that this bill accomplishes that, while at the same time preserving the traditional language that a marriage is between a man and a woman," Rell said.

Vermont is the only other state to allow civil unions. Massachusetts allows gay couples to marry. But those changes came about after same-sex couples won court battles.

Last summer, seven same-sex couples sued in Connecticut after being denied marriage licenses; the case has not been resolved.

Roman Catholics and pro-marriage activists plan a big rally Sunday in opposition to the bill.

Marie Hilliard, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, said the civil union proposal "got more legs than we ever hoped it would get." About 44 percent of the state's 3 million residents are Roman Catholic.

Brian Brown, head of the Family Institute of Connecticut, said his group intends to keep the issue squarely before the public.

"Our mission will be to let every person know in the state of Connecticut which lawmakers voted to redefine marriage, and which lawmakers voted to protect marriage," he said.

Anne Stanback, executive director of Loves Makes a Family, said her group would probably begin talking to lawmakers about gay marriage — though she acknowledged it's not likely the issue will be taken up next session.

"As important as the rights are, this is not yet equality," she said.