The Delaware Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would give gay and lesbian couples many of the legal protections of marriage.

Democratic Senator Dave Sokola's civil unions bill cleared the chamber with a comfortable 13 to 6 vote. (2 members were absent.)

Supporters fought off two amendments proposed by Democratic Senator Robert Venables. One measure asked for a public referendum on the issue, while a second opened civil unions to heterosexual couples and family members who live together.

The measure cleared the six member Senate Administrations and Elections Committee with the support its four Democratic members on March 30 after members heard two hours' worth of testimony.

The gay rights group Equality Delaware (EQDE) helped lawmakers draft the legislation.

At the hearing, EQDE President Lisa Goodman defended the bill from opponents' claims that civil unions were just a stepping stone to marriage for gay and lesbian couples.

“It's not about religion, it's not about procreation, it's not about some private purpose; this bill is about fairness and equality. This is a moderate bill based on what already exists in Delaware law to provide some but not all of the rights and protections that opposite sex couples enjoy.”

At an outdoor event to introduce the measure, Democratic Governor Jack Markell told the crowd that he looked forward to signing the bill into law.

Representative Melanie George will carry the bill in the Democrat-controlled House.