Legislation signed by Governor Jack Markell on Wednesday makes Delaware the fourth state to recognize the relationships of gay and lesbian couples with civil unions.

Markell signed the law that gives gay couples most of the legal protections of marriage before 600 cheering supporters. The legislation goes into effect on January 1, 2012.

“Tonight, with the signing of this law, we say to any Delawarean regardless of sexual orientation - if you’ve committed yourself to someone, and you’ve made that pledge to spend your life together in partnership, when life or death decisions come, we honor your right to make those decisions together,” Markell told the crowd.

“Tonight, we say to loving and committed couples across the state who want the law to endorse the promise that they made long ago in their hearts - 'Your love is equally valid and deserving, your family is now equal under the law.'”

“And tonight, we say to children of gay and lesbian parents in committed relationships all over our state – and there are so many wonderful kids, including many here tonight, growing up in those families all over our state – we say to you: It doesn't matter if your parents are gay or straight. The people you love and look up to and that are dedicating their lives and love to raising you – those are your parents.”

“You are a family. And while we’ve known it, and you’ve known it for years, tonight, that equality becomes real under law,” he added.

Delaware lawmakers made quick work of the bill, going from introduction to passage in the Legislature in just over 3 weeks. By contrast, similar recent victories in Hawaii and Illinois took years to accomplish. And New Jersey adopted civil unions only after a mandate from the state's highest court.

A GOP-controlled Colorado House committee killed a similar measure in March.

While praising the legislation, gay rights advocates lamented the fact that marriage remains out of reach for gay couples in Delaware.

“The governor's signature on this legislation moves same-sex couples in Delaware closer to equality,” said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. “Let's be clear, it is not a substitute for full legal marriage, but it provides fundamental security for same-sex couples that will allow them to take care of each other and their families. This is a reason to celebrate.”

Lawmakers in Rhode Island began debate on a similar measure on Wednesday.