With the stroke of a pen, the governor of Illinois legalized civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed the legislation into law Monday night, saying it was "a day of history."
The new law gives gay couples official recognition from the state, plus traditional marriage rights, including the right to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner. The law goes into effect June 1.
Illinois became one of about a dozen states that extend significant legal protections to same-sex couples. Five states already allow civil unions or their equivalent, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Five other states and Washington, D.C., let gay couples marry outright.
Opponents of the measure included religious and conservative groups. They said the law is a step toward legalized same-sex marriage.
"Marriage was not created by man or governments," David E. Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, said Monday. "It is an institution created by God. Governments merely recognize its nature and importance."
Cardinal Francis George and other Catholic leaders also vigorously fought passage of the law. The measure doesn't require churches to recognize civil unions or perform any kind of ceremony. But critics fear it will lead to other requirements such as including same-sex couples in adoption programs run by religious groups or granting benefits to employees' partners.
Illinois law will continue to limit marriage to one man and one woman, and civil unions still are not recognized by the federal government.