DENVER (AP) -- Civil unions for gay couples has been signed into law in Colorado in a dramatic turnaround for the state, where voters banned same-sex marriage in 2006 and restricted protections for gays 21 years ago.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the bill as dozens of gay couples looked on and cheered during a ceremony Thursday near the state Capitol.
The law takes effect May 1.
Colorado joins eight states that have civil unions or similar laws. Nine states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage.
"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 is also specially 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."
Ferrandino said the shift "shows how much through hard work and through a very thoughtful approach you can change public opinion."
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.
Republicans opposed the bill, saying they would've liked to see religious exemptions to provide legal protections for those opposed to civil unions.
Last May, Democrats said they had enough votes to pass the bill. But Republicans who controlled the House by one vote prevented debate on the bill.
Democrats took control of the House in November and retained the Senate.
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 year.
Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman, also a gay lawmaker who sponsored the bill, said public support has grown for civil unions because the issues same-sex couples are the same as all families.
"The issues at hand are ones that families all across the state know all too well," he said.