MONTPELIER, Vt., April 19 (AP)--A bill that would create the closest thing in America to gay marriage won final approval in the state Senate Wednesday.
The 19-11 vote mirrored the balloting when the measure won preliminary approval Tuesday.
A similar measure has already passed the House, but that chamber will have to consider changes made by the Senate. Democratic Gov. Howard Dean has said he will sign the bill.
The biggest difference between the House and Senate bills is the effective date. Under the Senate proposal, the first civil unions could take place beginning July 1. The House set the date two months later.
Before Wednesday's vote, senators turned aside one amendment that would have stated in state law that one of the central purposes of marriage is procreation.
House Speaker Michael Obuchowski said he would hold the House vote next Tuesday and was confident it would win final approval in that chamber.
The measure would enable gay couples to form ``civil unions'' that would entitle them to all 300 or so rights and benefits available under state law to married couples. No other state has gone as far as Vermont to give gay couples something approximating marriage.
However, Vermont's gay couples would still not be entitled to the federal benefits available to married couples in such areas as taxes and Social Security. And unlike marriage, civil unions would not confer portable rights; other states would probably not recognize such unions.
``We can do something of great weight,'' Sen. Richard McCormack, a Democrat, said in support of the bill. ``We can do something very, very important.''
The reaction of the dozens of people sitting in the Senate galleries, standing along the chamber's walls and milling about the hallways was subdued.
Opponents of the legislation, wearing white ribbons to signify their support for traditional marriage, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with supporters wearing pink stickers favoring civil unions.
Several senators who voted against the bill said they were doing so because their constituents opposed it. Others said they feared the national and international reaction.
``All of the United States and the world will judge our decision today,'' warned Republican Sen. Julius Canns, who unsuccessfully sought to insert into the state Constitution a definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
The state Supreme Court set the stage for the legislation with its unanimous December ruling that same-sex couples were being unconstitutionally denied the benefits of marriage.
The legislation would create a status parallel to marriage by allowing gay and lesbian couples to obtain a license from their town clerks and then have their unions certified by a judge or member of the clergy.
Same-sex couples then would qualify for the wide array of benefits available to married couples, from being able to make medical decisions on behalf of their partners to qualifying for certain tax breaks.
To break up a civil union, couples would have to go through Family Court to obtain dissolutions, just as when married couples divorce.
Opponents of the measure had attempted to derail it Tuesday with the pair of constitutional amendments. One amendment would have added to the state Constitution the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The second would have overturned the Supreme Court ruling.
``I believe their sexual orientation runs counter to natural law,'' Sen. John Crowley said of same-sex couples as he argued for the marriage definition. ``Their families run counter to natural law.''
Neither amendment won a simple majority, let alone the two-thirds required for constitutional amendments.
Scores of people listened to debate on the amendments over speakers in hallways outside the small Senate chamber.
Nicole Christian stood with a brightly colored sign that read: ``Friendship does not equal marriage! Get real!''
Chuck Kletecka, a social worker who is gay, surveyed the crowd of white ribbons and said: ``It's always sobering to see how many people would oppose civil rights.''
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