| CONCORD, New Hampshire
CONCORD, New Hampshire New Hampshire lawmakers authorized same-sex civil unions on Thursday, in a bill that will complete New England's transformation into a unique U.S. region where gay and lesbian couples have some form of legal recognition and conjugal rights.
The Democratic-controlled Senate voted 14-10 along party lines to give gays and lesbians nearly the same rights as married couples. The bill sailed through the House of Representatives on April 4, and Democratic Gov. John Lynch said last week he would sign it.
New Hampshire, known for its official motto "Live Free or Die," will become the fourth U.S. state to allow same-sex civil unions when the law takes effect on Jan 1. The law marks a shift in the state's traditionally conservative politics.
New Hampshire outlawed same-sex marriages in 1987. In 2004, in response to neighboring Massachusetts' top court allowing gay couples to marry, the state passed a law that would not recognize gay marriages from out of state.
But last year's elections signaled important political change. Democrats gained majorities in the legislature for the first time since 1874, in a state that was long a stronghold of moderate Republicans amid the liberal bastion of New England.
"We will be perceived as a free, open and tolerant society," said Janice Crawford, executive director of the Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, which already produces tour guides denoting gay-friendly New Hampshire inns.
The bill brings the divisive debate over gay rights into the state that traditionally holds the first primary in the presidential nominating process. Opponents of the legislation said they hoped it would be blocked in court.
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"I hope a lawsuit comes quickly so this will go away," said Sen. Bob Letourneau, a Republican. "This bill weakens marriage laws. Please don't tell me otherwise. It's a sad day for the state of New Hampshire."
Elsewhere in New England, Vermont and Connecticut recognize same-sex civil unions, which provide equal rights for gay couples in committed relationships but lack the full legal protection of marriage, and Maine offers gay couples some legal rights as partners.
Rhode Island's attorney general said in February the state will recognize any marriage performed in another state -- effectively recognizing the marriage of same-sex couples who are wed in neighboring Massachusetts.
New Hampshire will be first state to introduce same-sex civil unions without pressure from a court, but some locals said they expected the law to eventually end up in court.
"I don't have much faith it will not be reversed," said Tom Lavoie, 45, a realtor who is gay and likes the idea of gaining access to better health benefits through civil unions.
Sue McCoo, 54, of Concord added: It's a good thing because it's the right thing. ... It's not going to ruin any marriages."
Massachusetts is the only state where gay marriage is legal. In December, New Jersey became the third U.S. state to provide for gay civil unions. California, the District of Columbia and Hawaii each offer gay couples some legal rights as partners.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York praised state lawmakers for the bill.