A lengthy debate to recognize the unions of gay and lesbian couples in Illinois is over with Wednesday's passage of a civil unions bill in the state Senate.

The bill gives gay couples many of the rights and obligations of marriage.

The 32-24 vote came a day after House members approved the measure. The bill, sponsored by openly gay state Representative Greg Harris, now heads to the desk of Governor Pat Quinn, who has previously pledged to sign it into law.

“Today, Illinois took an important step forward in providing a measure of protections to same-sex couples and their families – protections of particular importance in these tough economic times,” Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a group that lobbies for gay marriage, said in a statement.

“With this step in the right direction, Illinois rejected arguments against fair treatment for gay people and their loved ones and acknowledged that gay couples and families exist and have the same hopes and needs as other families,” he added.

Wolfson also urged lawmakers to follow in the footsteps of other states that have legalized gay marriage after first approving civil unions.

“Having now laid a good foundation with civil union, Illinois should move swiftly to finish the job, ending exclusion from marriage for committed couples seeking the same responsibilities, same respect, and same rules.”

Senators opposed to the measure mostly argued that Illinois had bigger fish to fry.

“Rome is burning, folks, and we're sitting back watching it burning,” Republican Senator John Jones said.

Senator Chris Lauzen, a Republican from Aurora, called the bill a “misplaced priority.”

The Catholic Church also opposed passage of the bill. In a statement released last week, the church argued that the “public understanding of marriage will be negatively affected by passage of a bill that ignores the natural fact that sexual complementarity is at the core of marriage.”

At least three leading Chicago mayoral candidates urged lawmakers to approve the bill, including lawyer Gery Chico, Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, and former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun.

Illinois joins New Jersey in offering civil unions. Lawmakers in Hawaii are also likely to revisit the issue early next year.