Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger should ensure basic human rights to all Californians by signing The Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, granting full marriage equality

for same-sex couples, Human Rights Watch urged today in a letter to the former action hero.

Last Friday, by a vote of 22-15, the California State Senate approved AB 43, The Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, extending civil marriage to lesbian and gay couples.

The legislature’s lower house, the State Assembly, had passed the Act earlier this year by a vote of 42-34.

The governor has until October 14th to sign or veto the bill.

Governor Schwarzenegger had vetoed a similar bill when passed by California’s legislature in 2005.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger has been given one of the rarest things in life: a second chance to do the right thing,” said Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Programme at Human Rights Watch.

“Twice, California legislators have supported the human rights of lesbian and gay couples, and now the governor should do

the same.”

The California bill would define marriage in gender-neutral terms as a union between two people.

It would extend the same state protections of marriage to same-sex couples as to heterosexual ones.

Religious groups could continue to refuse to perform a marriage ceremony if their beliefs forbid it.

“Countries from the Netherlands to South Africa have recognised that marriage should include, not exclude,” said Dittrich, who as a member of the Dutch parliament sponsored the first successful legislation in the world extending marriage to same-sex couples.

“The US government should also see that the politics of prejudice destroys families.”

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, based in Washington, D.C. also called on Schwarzenegger to sign the marriage equality bill.

“The California Constitution is clear: everyone is equal under the law, and that’s just what this bill does – grants equality to all couples,” Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said.

“For far too long, too many California families have been placed in harm’s way because they lack the full, fundamental protections they deserve. Governor Schwarzenegger can rectify this inequality by stepping up and signing this bill the moment it lands on his desk.”

At the national level, Belgium, Canada, South Africa and Spain have also passed laws opening marriage rights to lesbian and gay couples.

The California bill would be an important step toward ending the

discrimination and damaging burdens that the lack of access to marriage imposes on same-sex partners, Human Rights Watch said.

“Only federal action can fully end discrimination against lesbian and gay couples in the US,” said Dittrich.

“But states like California can send a message, and the governor should lend his voice.”