Civil unions for gay couples got the governor's signature in Colorado today, punctuating a dramatic turnaround in a state where voters banned same-sex marriage in 2006 and restricted protections for gays two decades ago.

Colorado will join eight states that have civil unions or similar laws. Nine states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage. The law takes effect May 1.

Hundreds looked on as Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the bill, with many chanting "Equal! Equal!"

"There is no excuse that people shouldn't have all the same rights," Hickenlooper told the crowd.

Views on gay rights have been rapidly shifting in the United States. A Pew Research Center survey found that 49 per cent of Americans favour allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, and 44 per cent are opposed to the idea. A decade ago, 58 per cent opposed it and a third supported it.

Civil unions grant gay couples rights similar to marriage, including enhanced inheritance and parental rights. People in civil unions also would have the ability to make medical decisions for their partners.

"It means I can change my name finally," said 21-year-old Amber Fuentes, who plans to have a civil union with Yolanda Martinez, 34. "It's not marriage, but it still gives us a lot of the rights."

New law shows shift in thinking

The signing in Colorado comes less than a year after the proposal was blocked in the House by Republicans.

"It's really meaningful. To have the recognition of your love and relationship just like any other relationship by the state is an important both legal and symbolic thing," said Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, a sponsor of the bill and the first gay lawmaker to hold the title of speaker in Colorado.

Supporters of civil unions say the passage in Colorado also is telling because in 1992, voters approved a ban on municipal antidiscrimination laws to protect gays. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court said the law, known as Amendment 2, was unconstitutional — but not before some branded Colorado a "hate state." 

'It's really meaningful. To have the recognition of your love and relationship just like any other relationship by the state is an important both legal and symbolic thing.'—Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino

Ferrandino said the shift "shows how much through hard work and through a very thoughtful approach you can change public opinion."

Most Republicans opposed the bill, saying they would've liked to see religious exemptions to provide legal protections for those opposed to civil unions. Churches are shielded under the new law, but Democrats rejected protections for businesses and adoption agencies, arguing the Republican suggestions were too broad and could provide legal cover to discriminate.

In May, Democrats said they had enough votes to pass the bill. But Republicans who controlled the House by one vote prevented debate on the measure.

Democrats took control of the House in November and retained the Senate.

Violates will of voters?

Some Republicans insist the bill is too similar to marriage, and therefore violates the will of voters in 2006.

"Even though it was specifically told to us that it wasn't about marriage, I think both sides know that it is what it is about," said Republican Rep. Lori Saine, speaking against the bill before a final vote last week.

Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman, also a gay lawmaker who sponsored the bill, said public support has grown for civil unions because same-sex couples face the same challenges as other families.

"The issues at hand are ones that families all across the state know all too well," he said.

South of Colorado in Arizona, meanwhile, the city of Bisbee is poised to become the state's first community to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples.

U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on California's gay marriage ban in the coming months, a decision that could affect the status of gay marriage other states.