(RNS) A Vermont House committee has decided that gay couples shouldbe given the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples through abroad civil rights statute rather than marriage.The Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday (Feb. 9) to draftlegislation to extend legal rights to homosexual domestic partnerships.Three of the 11 committee members wanted a bill that would have made gaymarriage legal.If such a bill is enacted, Vermont would become the state providingthe most rights and benefits to gay couples."This is a momentous vote," said Gov. Howard Dean. "It's a vote tomove forward and become the first state to really grant equal rights" togays and lesbians.The full House must approve any legislation and various changescould be introduced at that level, the Associated Press reported.The state's Legislature has been struggling to respond to a stateSupreme Court ruling in December that declared gay couples areunconstitutionally denied benefits and rights that accompany legalmarriage.Members of the Vermont committee emphasized that their decision tobypass marriage was a tough one and was not intended to discriminate oroffend."This has been the most gut-wrenching and emotional issue I'vefaced," said Rep. John Edwards. "It is time we put the prejudice behindus. Somehow, when you listen to the compelling stories of gay andlesbian people, it demystifies who they are, what they stand for, andhow valuable they are in our communities. I believe we should worktoward legal benefits."