HARTFORD, Conn. -- Connecticut could become the second state in the nation to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples -- and the first to do so without being prompted by a court order.
Legislation that would create civil unions, and give them legal status equal to marriage, has passed three House-Senate committees here and could come before the full Senate as soon as Wednesday. Democrats, who have lined up behind the measure, hold overwhelming majorities in both houses.
Connecticut would join Vermont, which sanctioned same-sex civil unions in 2000, and Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage became legal last May, as the only states to recognize such relationships.
Lawmakers in those two states acted only after court rulings forced their hand. Opponents of same-sex unions charged "activist judges" with overstepping their bounds, and used the decisions to inspire voters in 11 states to outlaw same-sex marriage last November.
But the Connecticut case represents a different challenge for opponents of such rulings -- and more recent decisions of trial courts in California and New York, which held laws barring same-sex marriage unconstitutional.
"The importance of how this is happening here can't be underestimated," said state Sen. Andrew McDonald (D), one of Connecticut's few openly gay legislators and chairman of the judiciary committee. "Those who are most adamant about denying these rights say they were being forced on the public by judges. We have elected officials leading the way."
The origins of the Connecticut civil unions initiative can be found in a 2003 bill that would have offered certain limited domestic partnership benefits to gay couples. It died in the judiciary committee, but in the intervening years advocates continued to push their cause.
This year a bill that would have extended full marriage rights to same-sex couples was amended to provide for civil unions instead. That move was initially opposed by gay advocacy groups, which aim for nothing short of full marriage rights, and by opponents of same-sex marriage, who consider it equivalent to extending marriage rights but more likely to pass.
Ann Stanback, president of the Connecticut chapter of the gay rights advocacy group Love Makes a Family, initially argued that the bill would enshrine a lesser status for gay couples into law and leave legislators satisfied that a compromise had been reached.
But as the bill gained momentum, she said, she had changed her view because lawmakers made clear that granting civil unions would not halt the push toward to same-sex marriage.
"We feared it would not be a steppingstone [to same-sex marriage] but a dead end in the marriage debate," said Stanback, whose Hartford office is adorned with the sort of detailed, statewide ward and congressional district maps one might find at the headquarters of a political campaign.
"But because of our position, the legislators understand that this won't be the end of the discussion."
On that point, opponents of the measure, such as the Connecticut Catholic Conference, which handles political affairs for the church and is organizing a large rally here in the state capital this month, agree.
"If any Connecticut legislator thinks this is going to stop the issue, it won't. They will move forward to same-sex marriage with the official title," said the conference's legislative director, David W. Reynolds.
Reynolds said passage of the civil union bill would only increase the likelihood that a lawsuit filed in Connecticut last year by seven gay couples seeking the right to marry would result in the legalization of same-sex marriage.
"Our biggest concern is that the new law would be creating a separate-but-equal entity, and I have a hard time seeing how a court won't find that unconstitutional," he said.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers have sought to further amend the civil unions bill to restrict the definition of marriage to between one man and one woman. So far, such attempts have failed.
Brian Brown of the Family Institute of Connecticut, which opposes the civil unions bill, said that if the bill reaches the House floor, Republicans will try to amend it to call for a statewide referendum on the issue.
"The people should decide this for themselves," said Brown, whose organization has collected about 90,000 signatures from opponents of same-sex marriage and civil unions. It also commissioned a poll by Harris Interactive Inc., which found that 76 percent of residents wished to vote on the issue.
"Not a single senator ran on this when they were being elected," Brown added. "Now they are the ones championing same-sex marriage. The people of this state will hold them responsible."
A poll conducted last April by the University of Connecticut showed the state closely divided about same-sex marriage. But almost three-quarters of respondents said they supported civil unions.
Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R) has said that she is comfortable with the "concept" of civil unions legislation, but that if the bill passes, she needs to see the final language before deciding whether to sign it into law.
Regardless, Democratic lawmakers, who outnumber their Republican counterparts by about 2 to 1, say they have the votes to override a veto.
At least two other New England states are addressing gay rights legislation. A bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in Rhode Island is tied up in committee, while Maine Gov. John E. Baldacci (D) signed a bill Thursday that incorporates sexual orientation into the state's nondiscrimination laws.