March 17(RNS)--The Vermont House, in a historic vote Thursday,agreed to permit gay couples to form "civil unions" giving them the samerights and benefits afforded married heterosexual couples.

The bill, which passed by a vote of 76-69, is expected to receiveapproval from the state Senate by the end of April. The legislation alsohas been supported by Democratic Gov. Howard Dean.

If it becomes law, Vermont will have gone further than any otherstate in recognizing couples of the same sex, the Associated Pressreported.

"This certainly is groundbreaking," said Peg Byron, educationdirector for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay advocacygroup. "I think it really sets a moral as well as a legislative examplefor the rest of the country."

State lawmakers adopted an amendment making it clear the term"marriage" continues to refer solely to the union of a man and a woman.

Opponents to the bill consider it an assault on morality andtraditional marriage.

"This bill is not about the civil rights of a minority," said RomanCatholic Bishop Kenneth Angell in a statement. "This bill is about aminority imposing their concept of morality upon the morality of themajority."

The legislation is being considered after the state Supreme Courtruled in December that it was unconstitutional to deny same-sex couplesthe benefits of marriage. That court let the Vermont Legislaturedetermine whether gay marriages should be allowed or some kind ofdomestic partnership should be created.

Under the bill, partners could apply for a license from town clerksand have their civil unions "certified" by a judge, a justice of thepeace or a member of the clergy.

Some 300 state benefits or privileges available to married couplesalso would become available to same-sex couples in areas such as medicaldecisions, property transfers, inheritance and taxes. Couples could filea joint state income tax return, but federal taxes--along with SocialSecurity and immigration rights--would not be recognized by the federalgovernment.