MONTPELIER, Vt. -- Gov. Howard Dean signed a first-in-the-nation law Wednesday granting gay couples nearly all of the benefits of marriage.
"I think it is a courageous and powerful statement about who we are in the state of Vermont," the Democrat said. "I also believe that this legislation speaks to the heart of this state, and certainly to my heart."
The legislation creating marriage-like "civil unions" reached the governor's desk shortly before lunch time, just a day after the House gave its final approval. And by the time of a 2 p.m. news conference, he had already signed it out of view of TV cameras, photographers and reporters.
Dean said he signed the bill privately because he did not want the ceremony to be a triumphal party by supporters of the law. Instead, he said, it was time for the state to begin healing.
"In politics, bill-signings are triumphal," he said. "They represent overcoming of one side over another. These celebrations, as the subject of the matter of the bill, will be private."
The law will allow gay couples to form civil unions beginning July 1. That will entitle them to all of the hundreds of rights and responsibilities available to married couples under Vermont law in such areas as taxes, inheritance and medical decision-making.
Other states will probably not recognize Vermont civil unions, and such status will not entitle gay couples to any the benefits available to married couples under federal law in areas such as taxes and immigration.
Nevertheless, no state has gone further than Vermont is giving gay couples something approximating marriage.
The bill came about after the Vermont Supreme Court unanimously ruled in December that gay couples were being unconstitutionally denied the benefits of marriage. The court left it up to the Legislature time to decide whether to let gays marry or to create some kind of domestic partnership.
The legislation passed after strong debate in which opponents argued that homosexuality is "against natural law." Opponents have warned that they will make their anger known at the polls in November when members of the Legislature are up for re-election.
Under the law, gay couples will be able to go to their town clerks for licenses and have their unions certified by a judge or member of the clergy. Breakups will be handled in Family Court, just as divorces are, although they will be called dissolutions.
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