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Both houses of the Illinois legislature narrowly passed the measure that takes effect in July, though it does not alter a state law that limits marriage to a man and a woman.
The new law does give gay couples new rights normally reserved for spouses regarding such things as hospital visitation, making health-care decisions, and matters concerning probate of a partner's estate.
"Illinois is taking an historic step forward in embracing fairness and extending basic dignity to all couples in our state," said John Knight, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
Opponents of the Illinois law said allowing civil unions opened the way to gay marriage.