MONTPELIER, Vt., April 26--A bare 24 hours after the House gave its final approval, Gov. Howard Dean Wednesday signed into law a bill making Vermont the first state to give gay couples the rights and benefits of marriage.

It reached his desk shortly before lunchtime. And by the time of a 2 p.m. news conference, he already had signed it far out of view of television cameras, photographers and reporters.

"I think it is a courageous and powerful statement about who we are in the state of Vermont," Dean said. "I also believe that this legislation speaks to the heart of this state, and certainly to my heart."

Dean signed the bill privately because he did not want the ceremony to be a triumphal party by supporters of the law. Instead, he said, it was time for the state to begin healing.

"In politics, bill signings are triumphal," he said. "They represent overcoming of one side over another. These celebrations, as the subject of the matter of the bill, will be private."

The bill was approved Tuesday by House members 79-68 after supporters defeated a last-minute attempt to delay the vote until November. The measure recognizes gay unions as equivalent to marriages, although it resists calling them marriages.

The state will now afford homosexual couples the same benefits, protections and responsibilities afforded heterosexual married couples, giving them the most extensive legal rights for homosexual couples in the United States. But couples in civil unions will not be entitled to federal benefits, such as Social Security. Nor are other states expected to recognize the Vermont law.

In March, the House had voted 76-69 in favor of the measure. And last week the Senate approved it, 19-11. Tuesday's vote was scheduled to reconcile some differences between the House and Senate bills, such as whether the legislation would take effect in July or September. The House voted for July.

The unprecedented measure had evoked strong controversy throughout the state. Opponents of the bill had based their arguments on both religious and economic grounds. They said the measure flouted religious tenets and that it could turn off tourists and threaten a boycott of the state's goods. Advocates declared it was a question of civil liberties.

Supporters prevailed -- indeed, they picked up an additional three votes Tuesday.

The issue of homosexual rights in Vermont arose in December after the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of three same-sex couples who sought the same legal rights afforded married couples. At that time the court directed the Legislature to find a solution, such as whether to permit homosexual couples to marry or establish an institution parallel to marriage.

Under the civil union concept, a couple may buy a license for $20 at a town hall and then appear before a judge, justice of the peace, or clergy for sanctification. Should the couple later wish to sever their relationship, they would go to a family court for a divorce.

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