HARTFORD -- The state House of Representatives passed legislation yesterday that would make Connecticut the second state to establish same-sex civil unions, and the first to do it without a court order.
But to appease gay marriage opponents and to avoid a possible veto by Republican Governor M. Jodi Rell, the Democrat-controlled House amended the bill to define marriage as being between one man and one woman.
That means the Senate, which overwhelmingly approved the civil unions bill last week, would need to approve the amended version before it reaches Rell's desk.
If the Senate approves the amended version, Rell said she will sign it into law.
''The House bill sends an unambiguous message about our commitment to fight discrimination, promote civil rights, and preserve the traditional institution of marriage," she said last night.
Vermont has approved civil unions and Massachusetts has same-sex marriage, but those changes came only after same-sex couples brought lawsuits.
The Connecticut bill, approved 85-to-63 by the House, would give same-sex couples all the rights and privileges of marriage, but they would not be eligible to receive marriage licenses.
Reaction to the vote was mixed.
Many of the proponents said they were proud Connecticut lawmakers took the step voluntarily.
''I think the Connecticut Legislature and the state of Connecticut as a whole showed how we're perhaps head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to being open-minded and tolerant of our citizens," said Representative Michael Lawlor, a Democrat from East Haven, cochairman of the Judiciary Committee and a key proponent.
The other committee cochairman agreed. ''This is a vote and this is a process that will reverberate around the country," said Senator Andrew McDonald, a Democrat from Stamford and one of a handful of openly gay legislators.
But other proponents were disappointed the legislation was amended with the marriage definition.
''From my perspective, they're giving with one hand and taking with the other," said Mary Bonauto, a Boston lawyer who led a successful fight for same-sex marriage rights in Massachusetts. ''In the end, they have completely accepted and put into law the second-class status of gay and lesbian families in Connecticut. That is a very bitter pill to swallow."
Marie Hilliard, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, called the amendment defining marriage ''a huge victory." Although it is not as strong as a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, Hilliard said, she believes it provides some protection from court action.