The state Senate easily approved a bill that would make Connecticut the first state to recognize civil unions between same-sex couples without being pressured by the courts.
Senators debated for nearly four hours Wednesday before voting 27-9 for the landmark bill, which would give gay and lesbian couples many of the same rights as married couples. Vermont has approved civil unions and Massachusetts has gay marriage, but the changes came only after lawsuits were brought by same-sex couples.
"We stand today before a portal to history," said Democratic Sen. Andrew McDonald, one of a handful of openly gay lawmakers. "I ask you to pass through it."
Proponents say the legislation will likely clear the state House, possibly as early as next week. Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell has not taken a stand on the bill but has said she supports the concept of civil unions.
A poll released Thursday found that Connecticut voters back civil unions but not gay marriage.
Civil unions were supported by 56 percent of registered voters, while 53 percent opposed marriage for same-sex couples, according to the Quinnipiac University survey. The telephone poll of 1,541 registered voters was taken from March 28 to April 4 and had an error margin of 3 percentage points.
Brian Brown, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, had maintained that most voters do not support civil unions or same-sex marriage, and he called the vote "a slap in the face of democracy." But Anne Stanback, president of Love Makes a Family and an advocate for same-sex marriage, said she was "very proud to live in Connecticut today."
Gay rights proponents originally hoped to pass a bill similar to the Massachusetts law that allows same-sex couples to marry. But legislative leaders decided there was more political support for Vermont-style civil unions, which extend state-mandated rights and privileges of marriage, but without the marriage license.
Six of the Senate's 12 Republicans and 21 of the 24 Democrats voted for the bill. Six Republicans and three Democrats voted against it.
An effort failed to amend the bill to define marriage as being between one man and one woman. Rell said she would prefer the marriage definition was in the legislation, but would not say she would veto the bill if it weren't.
The vote came a day after Kansas became the 18th state to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Thirteen other states passed such prohibitions last year.
The 2000 Census found 7,400 same-sex couples in Connecticut.
About 70 people watched the debate from the Senate galleries. The crowd ranged from same-sex couples to monks who opposed the legislation.
State Sen. John Kissel, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, who voted against the legislation, said experience shows that civil unions will just be a temporary answer and advocates will continue to press for gay marriage.
"It's hard to believe that the train, as it rolls down the tracks, is going to stop at this station," said Kissel. "Going down this road has a price to it."
Associated Press writer Noreen Gillespie contributed to this report.