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Lobbyist Rick Garcia had a response for such concerns: “You are correct.”

Mr. Garcia, director of public policy for the gay-rights group Equality Illinois, said he considers civil unions a poor substitute for marriage but hopes the move eventually leads toward marriage rights for gay couples. He and other supporters say same-sex marriage has little support in the Legislature right now, so civil unions are the most they can get.

At least five states already offer civil unions. A handful of others have legalized same-sex marriages.

Critics also have argued the legislation could hurt religious institutions, even though its official name is the “Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act.”

The measure wouldn’t require churches to recognize civil unions or perform any kind of ceremony, opponents acknowledge, but they fear it would lead to other requirements, such as including same-sex couples in adoption programs run by religious groups or granting benefits to employees’ partners.