New Hampshire lawmakers approved legislation Thursday that may make it the fourth state to allow same-sex civil unions.
The measure passed the Democratic-controlled Senate 14-10 and Gov. John Lynch said last week he would sign it.
Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire applauded the approval and told The Associated Press he would take advantage of it.
"My partner and I look forward to taking full advantage of the new law," said Robinson, who widened rifts in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion when he became the first openly gay bishop to be consecrated in 2003.
Two years earlier, a study panel of lawmakers and community leaders concluded that homosexuality was a choice and recommended a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Proposed constitutional bans on same-sex “marriage,” however, have been defeated by state lawmakers two years in a row.
While sponsors of the civil unions bill called it a door to marriage, opponents argued it's a blow to traditional values.
Sen. Bob Letourneau, a Republican, called it a "sad day" for New Hampshire. "This bill weakens marriage laws. Please don't tell me otherwise," he said, according to Reuters.
"I hope a lawsuit comes quickly so this will go away," he added.
But Robinson has hope the day will come when gays will be able to “marry.”
"I think this is a huge leap forward but it is not full equality until we have equality," he said of the civil union legislation, according to AP. "We have come further in a short time than any civil rights movement in history."
Meanwhile, Anglican leaders gave the Episcopal Church a Sept. 30 deadline to unequivocally pledge not to consecrate another partnered gay bishop or authorize official prayers for same-sex couples. If it doesn't, the church risks a much-reduced role in the Anglican Communion. Robinson said the Episcopal Church should not give in to demands that it roll back its acceptance of gays.
New Hampshire will be the first state to introduce same-sex civil unions without pressure from a court. The civil union legislation takes effect on Jan. 1, 2008.
Other states offering civil unions for gay couples are New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont. Neighboring Massachusetts is the only state to allow gay "marriage." And California, the District o Columbia and Hawaii offer gay couples some legal rights as partners.