In a landmark vote that significantly raises the standard for gay civil rights nationwide, the Vermont House of Representatives today ratified broad legislation granting homosexual couples the same rights and protections as if they were married.

By a vote of 79 to 68, legislators here did more than solidify Vermont's independent pedigree in creating an institution parallel to marriage--called civil union--that legally recognizes the lifelong commitment of a man to a man and a woman to a woman. They also gave birth to a new verb: to civil unionize.

"CU me," Stacy Jolles whispered in a proposal to her partner, Nina Beck, as they embraced their 5-month-old son following the final House vote. "CU me."

Democratic Gov. Howard Dean promised to sign the historic legislation, which could arrive on his desk as early as Thursday and goes further than any other state in sanctioning same-sex unions by providing a network of 300 state benefits for gay couples, from inheritance rights to property transfers. Couples will be entitled to obtain civil union licenses after July 1, allowing them to have their relationship legally certified, much as marriages are solemnized, and to receive certain tax and insurance privileges after Jan. 1.

The bill prominently defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman. But as the legislative roll call hurtled toward final passage today, the three couples who filed suit against the state seeking equal rights smiled with anticipation. Holly Puterbaugh, who has been with her partner for nearly 28 years, called the process "a wild ride." Stan Baker, who plans a church ceremony with his partner this summer, said he was a little dazed. And Jolles called it a "great step forward."

George Belansek, 37, a single gay Vermonter who attended the proceedings with more than 200 other onlookers, went even further. Vermont was the first state in the nation to abolish slavery. This, too, he said, "is history in the making."

There were tears and hugs among those who wore pink badges in support of gay rights, even polite requests for the autograph of Rep. William Lippert Jr. (D), the only openly gay state legislator and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which crafted the initial legislation. But those who had hopefully pinned white ribbons to their lapels in support of traditional marriage and prayed together on the State House steps made a quick exit, vowing that the November elections would provide ample opportunity for their voices to be heard.

"It makes a mockery of marriage," said Robert Knight, a senior director at the Family Research Council in the District, which opposes same-sex unions.

Four months have passed since the Vermont Supreme Court set the wheels in motion for this day with a decision that found gay couples were being unconstitutionally denied the benefits of marriage. The high court left it up to the legislature to decide whether to allow gay marriages or create some kind of alternative system, despite the fact that 32 other states have adopted laws restricting marriage to heterosexual couples and Congress has allowed states not to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

Under the bill passed last week by the Senate and today by the House, gay partners may apply for a license from a town clerk and have their civil unions certified by a justice of the peace, a judge or a member of the clergy. To dissolve a civil union, they must be Vermont residents for at least six months and proceed through family court. The federal government will not recognize such unions with regard to immigration rights, Social Security benefits and federal taxes, among other matters, and it is not clear if any of the benefits of a Vermont civil union would be transferable to another state. A newly created nine-member civil union review commission will examine that issue, among its other duties.

The majority of Vermonters are believed to oppose gay marriage, according to recent polls, and just how civil unions will play out in the everyday sense remains as uncertain as how this close-knit state of about 600,000 people will heal the substantial rifts from the months-long deliberations. Several legislators handed in their special license plates after their cars were vandalized. Others reported hate mail and verbal harassment.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Thomas Little (R) tried to restore a calm tone today by apologizing for the fact that opponents of same-sex unions had to endure accusations of bigotry. He further acknowledged the emotional power of an issue that has forced lawmakers to delve into so much held so dear, and that has caused many to jeopardize their political careers by voting their conscience.

"The granting of the equal protection of the law, by providing the legal protections, benefits and responsibilities that flow from marriage, will not diminish your humanity, your dignity, your freedom or independence," Little told the assembly. "The continued denial of these legal protections, benefits and responsibilities to a small but vulnerable class of Vermont citizens diminishes their humanity, dignity, freedom and independence."

Nevertheless, the battle lines were drawn, no matter how moving the arguments about love and the human condition. Some said civil unions would strengthen marriages by stabilizing relationships. Others vigorously decried alternative lifestyles. Healing, one leader concluded, is impossible at this time.

"As we prepare to commit social rape upon an unwilling citizenry, my Lady of Liberty weeps," said Rep. Neil Randall (R), who wore a red, white and blue Statue of Liberty tie and quoted from the Bible as he accused homosexuals of unnatural behavior. "I weep because my Lady of Liberty weeps."

Gay Marriage Bans

Thirty-two states have laws specifically banning same-sex marriages. No state gives same-sex couples the right to marry.

States with laws against same-sex marriage:

WASHINGTON

CALIFORNIA

ALASKA

IDAHO

MONTANA

UTAH

ARIZONA

NORTH DAKOTA

SOUTH DAKOTA

KANSAS

OKLAHOMA

HAWAII

MINNESOTA

IOWA

ARKANSAS

LOUISIANA

ILLINOIS

MISSISSIPPI

MICHIGAN

INDIANA

KENTUCKY

TENNESSEE

ALABAMA

MAINE

PENNSYLVANIA

WEST VIRGINIA

VIRGINIA

NORTH CAROLINA

SOUTH CAROLINA

GEORGIA

FLORIDA

States without such laws:

OREGON

NEVADA

WYOMING

COLORADO

NEW MEXICO

NEBRASKA

TEXAS

WISCONSIN

MONTANA

OHIO

NEW YORK

VERMONT

NEW HAMPSHIRE

MASSACHUSETTS

RHODE ISLAND

CONNECTICUT

NEW JERSEY

DELAWARE

MARYLAND

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

SOURCE: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force