| CONCORD, New Hampshire
CONCORD, New Hampshire New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch signed a law on Thursday allowing same-sex civil unions that give gays and lesbians nearly the same rights as married couples.
The measure will take effect January 1 and make New Hampshire the fourth U.S. state to allow same-sex civil unions, marking a transformation in the traditionally conservative state.
"It's never too soon to act to prevent discrimination," Lynch said at the signing ceremony.
The change came swiftly in a state that had outlawed same-sex marriages in 1987, sailing through the two houses of the state legislature in April.
It followed an electoral shift in the state, known for its "Live Free or Die" motto and for holding the first presidential election primaries. Democrats last year gained control of the state legislature for the first time in more than a century.
"People in committed relationships should not have to worry about visiting a loved one in a hospital, or whether their loved ones will inherit their estate, or the many other legal protections so many of us take for granted," Lynch said.
But the story may not be over, with both supporters and opponents of the measure expecting a court challenge on the socially divisive issue.
New England has become unique in the United States for its treatment of gay couples. Massachusetts is the only U.S. state to allow full gay marriage, while Vermont and Connecticut allow gay civil unions.
Maine offers gay couples some legal protection as partners and officials in Rhode Island have said they will recognize any marriage performed in another state -- including nearby Massachusetts.
Opponents of gay marriage in Massachusetts continue to battle the practice, which is allowed as the result of a 2003 court decision. Last year the state legislature approved a measure that could give voters a chance to overturn the ruling with an amendment to the state constitution.
Elsewhere in the United States, New Jersey allows civil unions, while California, the District of Columbia and Hawaii offer gay couples some rights as partners. Twenty-six states have constitutional amendments barring gay marriage, while 19 others have statutes limiting marriage to a man and a woman.