If a proposed bill passes the state legislature, Connecticut could legalize civil unions for same-sex couples by June, becoming the first state to adopt civil unions through legislative action rather than court decree.

Responding to a vote in the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell unexpectedly announced Tuesday that she would potentially be open to signing civil unions into law. Two years after the legislature’s Judiciary Committee voted strongly against civil unions, the same committee voted 25-13 last Wednesday in favor of full legal rights for gay couples in a civil union and also rejected an amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

Rell’s announcement could signal a greater willingness for state officials to accept same-sex unions, though gay marriage remains a controversial topic. As local courts and state legislatures wrangle over same-sex unions, the issue has assumed national proportions.

Civil unions provide full legal equality for gay couples but are not recognized by the federal government or any other state, with the exception of Vermont. Though some activists for same-sex marriage criticized the adoption of a civil union bill as a dead end for winning the right to marriage, the bill, if passed by the legislature, will for the first time grant gay couples official legal recognition in Connecticut.

Rell spokesman Dennis Schain said the governor believes in the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman and makes no promises about signing the proposed legislation into effect, but she “conceptually” favors civil unions.

“She said if the civil union bill were passed by the legislature, she would need to see the specific bill and language used, but she did make it clear that in general she is in favor of civil unions,” Schain said.

Democratic state Rep. Michael Lawlor, the chief legislative supporter of the civil union bill, said the Judiciary Committee’s vote, while a significant step in its own right, should help push gay marriage onto the state’s legislative table and should spark a movement in Washington to recognize civil unions as a consensus choice rather than a court imposition.

“The difference in Connecticut is that because we’re not driven by the courts, it takes away the argument raging in Washington about activist judges in courts,” Lawlor said. “It’s kind of hard to argue against this now. If states want to do this, why shouldn’t they? This is a free country after all.”

Lawlor said the Judiciary Committee’s vote demonstrated clear, bipartisan support for civil unions and could result in the bill’s becoming law by the end of this year.

Much of the Judiciary Committee debate, however, centered on the prospect of gay marriage rather than the issue at hand. Connecticut officials including Lawlor and New Haven Mayor John DeStefeno Jr. said they hoped same-sex marriage, approved in Massachusetts but nowhere else, would soon appear in legislative form in the state.

“The mayor believes civil marriage confers rights and benefits on those getting married,” mayoral spokesman Derek Slap said in an e-mail. “Denying people a marriage license based on their sexual orientation is a denial of civil rights and is anti-American.”

But Peter Wolfgang, director of public policy at the Family Institute, a group opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage, said civil unions are equivalent to gay marriage. Wolfgang argued for a state-wide referendum allowing the public to vote on same-sex marriage and eliminating the courts’ authority on the issue. Courts in several states, including Massachusetts and California, have unilaterally approved gay marriage.

“Whatever stance you take on the issue, I think it can be agreed that so important, monumental, and salient an issue should be decided by the people,” Wolfgang said.

Lawlor, noting that the Judiciary Committee voted down a similar proposal, dismissed a state-wide referendum as unlikely and a distraction.

But for Anne Stanback DIV ’85, president of the gay-marriage advocacy group Love Makes a Family, the passage of the civil union bill is a mixed blessing. Stanback’s group initially urged legislators to vote against civil unions as a potential roadblock for gay marriage. After the Judiciary Committee’s vote, however, the organization’s official position changed to acknowledge that civil unions may not preclude same-sex marriage after all. But, Stanback said, civil unions are not enough and the fight for gay marriage must continue.

“When the legislature opened the session and we voiced our opposition, we were very concerned that civil unions would be a dead end,” Stanback said. “I firmly believe that because we took the position we did and argued against legislation, there has been a real change in understanding. I’m hopeful that if the legislation passes it won’t be a dead end, but if the civil union bill passes we will be right back there the next day with the message that marriage provides rights a civil union doesn’t.”

Lawlor agreed, saying passing the civil union bill would already be a significant victory for gay rights and could lead to Connecticut’s approving same-sex marriage in the near future.

“There is consensus around civil unions, there is no question of where public support lies,” Lawlor said. “But this is not going to end here, this will inevitably go to marriage.”

In the short term, the General Assembly is scheduled to vote on civil unions early this summer.