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Governor M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, outside her office in Hartford yesterday after signing the bill into law.
Governor M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, outside her office in Hartford yesterday after signing the bill into law. (AP Photo)

Conn. approves gay civil unions

Advocates and opponents criticize compromise law

HARTFORD -- Connecticut became the second state in the nation yesterday to create civil unions for gays and lesbians. The move disappointed some gay-rights activists who had hoped to see the state follow Massachusetts' lead in creating same-sex marriage and angered some conservatives who said the measure was a step in the direction of gay nuptials.

The legislation was approved by a wide margin in the Senate and enacted swiftly by Governor M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, late yesterday afternoon.

''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 after signing the bill into law.

The measure pushed Connecticut to the forefront of the debate over same-sex unions and made it the first state in the nation to enact civil unions without a court mandate. Vermont created civil unions in 2000 when the state's highest court ordered the Legislature to extend the privileges of marriage to same-sex couples.

Last year, Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage, which Connecticut lawmakers said was significant in propelling yesterday's vote on civil unions.

The Connecticut legislation is similar to Vermont's and extends all the rights and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, except for the right to marry. An amendment to the legislation defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The additional language was inserted to make the bill amenable to conservative lawmakers.

Connecticut's civil unions will not be recognized by the federal government and will carry no weight in the 49 other states, including Vermont.

The measure faced opposition from, among others, the Connecticut Catholic Conference and the Family Institute of Connecticut, which yesterday condemned the state's enactment of civil unions.

''This legislation creates same-sex marriage by another name," said Brian Brown, executive director of the Family Institute, who said his group would publicize the votes of legislators who backed the measure in the hope of seeing them defeated at the ballot box next election.

His group has organized a rally at the State House on Sunday to protest the legislation.

Gay-marriage supporters expressed muted happiness, saying they had hoped for more but were pleased to have legislation that they say begins to extend equality to same-sex couples.

''It's bittersweet," said Anne Stanback, president of Love Makes a Family, a consortium that initially opposed civil unions because it believed they don't go far enough but later endorsed them as a move in the right direction.

Yesterday, the scene outside the State House was placid. Early in the day, supporters of the civil-union measure gathered on the lawn where they lunched and took in the day's sunshine. But they had scattered by late afternoon when news of the bill's passage came. It was a striking contrast with the Massachusetts State House last year, where thousands descended to rally with loud and dramatic flourishes both for and against same-sex marriages.

Connecticut bears some of the same political leanings of Massachusetts. Its voter base is considered moderately liberal, its governor is a Republican, and it has a heavy concentration of Catholics. Supporters of same-sex marriage had hoped to ride the wave of momentum from Massachusetts when they submitted legislation to permit marriage for gays and lesbians.

''Massachusetts had a profound impact on the debate here," said Andrew McDonald, the openly gay chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a chief proponent of civil unions. ''People took notice of that -- that a state had adopted same-sex unions and not been diminished one bit."

Lawmakers initially introduced a measure that would legalize same-sex marriages, but it soon became clear that support was not strong enough. Lawmakers amended the bill to substitute the less-controversial proposal for civil unions. The move split supporters of gay marriage, some of whom later came to view it as a reasonable compromise.

Polls have consistently indicated that Connecticut voters largely support civil unions but oppose gay marriage. The most recent, conducted by Quinnipiac University and released earlier this month, showed that Connecticut voters opposed same-sex marriage, 53 to 42 percent, but 56 percent of them support civil unions.

The House of Representatives passed the civil-unions bill last week 85 to 63 after six hours of debate, and the Senate passed it yesterday by 26 to 8 after only an hour of debate.

Rell, a Republican who took office last July after a corruption scandal led to the imprisonment of her predecessor, John G. Rowland, had said early in the debate that she opposed same-sex marriage but supported civil unions.

Yesterday, Rell signed the bill an hour after its passage in a public ceremony -- in contrast to former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who faced criticism from gay activists when he signed his state's civil-union bill behind closed doors in what some said was an effort to deflect media attention.

Legislators were mum yesterday on whether they would reintroduce legislation to permit same-sex marriage in Connecticut. ''We are thrilled to have the governor's support and what happens tomorrow or in the months ahead is not what we're focused on," McDonald said.

Senate Republican leader Lou DeLuca, who voted against the civil-union measure, said he expects to see gay-marriage legislation introduced. ''This is just one step on the way to what I believe runs contrary to the will of the people of Connecticut," DeLuca said.

Brown, of the Family Institute of Connecticut, agreed. ''Some legislators thought civil unions was a way out," he said. ''They falsely think it is some kind of compromise, but the proponents have made clear that civil unions is only a steppingstone to full same-sex marriage."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report

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