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Wednesday, 19 April, 2000, 17:04 GMT 18:04 UK
Vermont approves gay rights bill
Three gay couples mounted a legal challenge last year n the Supreme Court
Three gay couples mounted a legal challenge last year in the Supreme Court
The Senate of the US state of Vermont has approved a bill that will create the closest thing in America to gay marriage.

The measure, passed by 19-11 votes, will enable gay couples to form "civil unions" which will entitle them to hundreds of rights and benefits available under state law to married couples.
gay couple
Gay couples will qualify for tax breaks

The senators largely adhered to a similar bill passed in the House last week, and the amended bill will now pass back to the House for final approval.

The main difference between the bills is the start date - under the Senate proposal the bill will take effect in July; the House suggests two months later.

California and Hawaii have extended some state benefits to domestic partners, but no state has given gay couples the same legal standing as traditional couples, according to legal experts.

Reaction feared

Opponents of the bill wearing white ribbons and supporters in pink lined the Senate galleries to hear the debate, which lacked much of the passion of the House debate last week.

After the vote gay rights campaigners voiced their support of the outcome:

Vermont is taking care of its gay and lesbian citizens in a way that other states are not

David Smith

"Vermont is restating its commitment to fairness by today's actions", David Smith of the Human Rights campaign said.

Senator Richard McCormack, a Democrat, also supported the bill, saying "we can do something very, very important".

Pro-family campaigners however accused the Senate of ignoring the will of the people.

It's a tragic day for the state of Vermont

Janet Parshall

Janet Parshall of the Family Research Council said the action was "a direct assault on the sacred institution of marriage".

The senators who voted against it said they were doing so because their constituents opposed it, or because they feared the national or international reaction.

Same benefits

"All of the United States and the world will judge our decision today" warned Republican Senator Julius Canns.

The Vermont Supreme Court set the stage for Wednesday's bill by ruling last December that same-sex couples must be granted the same benefits and protections as heterosexual couples.

The ruling was described as the first of its kind in the United States.

Under the new legislation same-sex couples will still not be entitled to married couples' federal benefits, such as taxes and social security however.

The new civil unions will also probably not be recognised in other states.

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See also:

01 Feb 99 | Europe
Protest at 'gay marriage' plans
21 Dec 99 | Americas
Gay rights victory in Vermont
07 Mar 00 | Americas
California rejects gay marriage
30 Mar 00 | Americas
US rabbis approve gay partnership
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