Illinois lawmakers took a step toward offering legal recognition to gay couples Tuesday when the House narrowly voted to create civil unions that would carry some of the benefits and obligations of marriage.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois lawmakers took a step toward offering legal recognition to gay couples Tuesday when the House narrowly voted to create civil unions that would carry some of the benefits and obligations of marriage.

Supporters presented it as a matter of basic fairness. Opponents argued it moves Illinois closer to legalizing same-sex marriages.

Democrats broke into applause after the 61-52 vote was final, giving the bill’s sponsor a standing ovation.

"It’s a matter of fairness. It’s a matter of respect. It’s a matter of equality," said the sponsor, Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago.

The measure now moves to the Senate, where supporters think they have even more support. Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said he plans to call the bill for a vote Wednesday and is optimistic it will pass.

Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who visited the House floor during Tuesday evening’s debate, said he would sign the bill if lawmakers send it to his desk.

Cardinal Francis George and other Catholic leaders have fought civil unions, but Quinn, who is Catholic, said he has no reservations about supporting the measure.

"My religious faith animates me to support this bill. I think that people of good faith, maybe, can disagree and have different points of view," Quinn said.

With civil unions, Illinois law would treat gay and lesbian couples as if they were married. They would inherit property when a partner dies, for instance, and they could make medical decisions for one another in an emergency.

Illinois law would continue to reserve the word "marriage" for unions between a man and woman. And federal law wouldn’t recognize the civil unions, meaning gay Illinois couples couldn’t file joint tax returns.

Emotions ran high during the debate.

Rep. Deborah Mell, D-Chicago, broke down as she discussed the possibility of her partner, Christin Baker, falling seriously ill. She said current law would bar doctors from consulting her about Baker’s condition because they have no official recognition.

Many legislators mentioned former Rep. Larry McKeon, who was Illinois’ first openly gay lawmaker. Hospital administrators turned McKeon away when his longtime partner was dying, saying he had to go home and get documents proving he had the right to visit. By the time McKeon was able to get the document and return, his partner had died.

"It’s appalling that anybody would think that’s OK. It’s not OK," said Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie.

On the other side of the debate, Rep. Ron Stephens quietly insisted his opposition was based on principle, not animosity toward homosexual people. "Just call me an old-fashioned traditionalist," the Greenville Republican said.

Few lawmakers spoke against the legislation. Those who did argued civil unions are a step toward legalizing same-sex marriage, perhaps by court order.

"Are you ready for gay marriage? Because that very well could be what comes out of this," said Rep. David Reis, R-Willow Hill.

Lobbyist Rick Garcia had a response for such concerns: "You are correct."

Garcia, director of public policy for the gay-rights group Equality Illinois, said he considers civil unions a poor substitute for marriage but hopes the move eventually leads toward marriage rights for gay couples. He and other supporters say same-sex marriage has little support in the Legislature right now, so civil unions are the most they can get.

At least five states already offer civil unions. A handful of others have legalized same-sex marriages.

Critics have also argued the legislation could hurt religious institutions, even though its official name is the "Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act."

The measure wouldn’t require churches to recognize civil unions or perform any kind of ceremony, opponents acknowledge, but they fear it would lead to other requirements, such as including same-sex couples in adoption programs run by religious groups or granting benefits to employees’ partners.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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