CONCORD, N.H. – A bill authorizing civil unions for gays cleared its last hurdle Thursday in New Hampshire, the first state to embrace same-sex unions without a court order or the threat of one.
The Senate passed the bill 14-10 on straight party lines, Democrats in favor, Republicans against.
"I'm kind of am speechless," said Democratic state Rep. Bette Lasky, who shepherded civil unions through the House. "I'm delighted this is the result and I'm proud of both the House and Senate for upholding New Hampshire's tradition of advancing minority rights."
The bill goes to Gov. John Lynch, who announced last week he will sign it.
"This legislation is a matter of conscience, fairness and of preventing discrimination," said Lynch spokesman Colin Manning.
Three other states already offer civil unions for gay couples: New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont. Neighboring Massachusetts in 2004 became the only state to allow gay marriage.
Unlike other states, there was no active court challenge to push New Hampshire to act on the issue. Two years in a row, lawmakers defeated proposed constitutional bans on same-sex marriage.
"To me this legislation is a credit to our state. We're making this move not because some court someplace is telling us that we must," said Democratic Sen. Joe Foster of Nashua. "We do so today because it is the right thing to do."
The bill's success is an about-face from two years ago, when a study panel recommended giving no meaningful consideration to extending legal recognition to gay couples. That panel, staffed mostly by supporters of a ban on gay marriage, concluded that homosexuality is a choice and endorsed a constitutional amendment to limit marriage to unions between a man and a woman.
Democrats won control of the Legislature last fall for the first time in more than a century. Republicans quickly predicted trouble ahead — for Democrats and civil unions.
"It is an example of the Democrats over-reading their mandate," said state Republican Chairman Fergus Cullen.
"I am predicting that we are going to have one heck of a mess," said Republican Sen. Jack Barnes, who voted against civil unions.
Sponsors of the civil unions bill called it a door to marriage in all aspects but name. Republicans seized on that remark, saying civil unions would lead to a collapse of traditional values.
"Let's just call it what it really is, no sugarcoating," said Republican Sen. Robert Letourneau, of Derry. "This creates same-sex marriage. There is no right to marriage in either the New Hampshire Constitution or the federal Constitution."
"We don't let blind people drive or felons vote, all for good and obvious reasons," he said.
State Rep. Jim Splaine, the openly gay sponsor of the civil unions bill, said time would change those attitudes.
"As we continue to evolve this discussion, we'll see people not worried so much about the marriage word," Splaine said. "This is an important difference. This is not marriage. This is civil union. This does nothing to impact anyone's marriage."
The bill will take effect Jan. 1. But some are planning already.
"My partner and I have already spoken to our minister and we will be having a civil union the instant it is possible to do so," said Democratic Rep. Gail Morrison, of Sanbornton.
Washington, Maine, California, New York City and Washington D.C., recognize domestic partnerships. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer this week pledged to introduce gay marriage legislation in the next few weeks.