(RNS) A Vermont House committee has decided that gay couples should be given the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples through a broad civil rights statute rather than marriage. The Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday (Feb. 9) to draft legislation to extend legal rights to homosexual domestic partnerships. Three of the 11 committee members wanted a bill that would have made gay marriage legal. If such a bill is enacted, Vermont would become the state providing the most rights and benefits to gay couples. "This is a momentous vote," said Gov. Howard Dean. "It's a vote to move forward and become the first state to really grant equal rights" to gays and lesbians. The full House must approve any legislation and various changes could be introduced at that level, the Associated Press reported. The state's Legislature has been struggling to respond to a state Supreme Court ruling in December that declared gay couples are unconstitutionally denied benefits and rights that accompany legal marriage. Members of the Vermont committee emphasized that their decision to bypass marriage was a tough one and was not intended to discriminate or offend. "This has been the most gut-wrenching and emotional issue I've faced," said Rep. John Edwards. "It is time we put the prejudice behind us. Somehow, when you listen to the compelling stories of gay and lesbian people, it demystifies who they are, what they stand for, and how valuable they are in our communities. I believe we should work toward legal benefits."
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