Lesiglation to provide gay and straight unmarried couples with the right to enter into domestic partnerships under state law has been rejected by the New Mexico state Senate.

The bill would have covered hospital visitation, the right to make a medical decision for an incapacitated partner, the right to file a joint state tax return, and inheritance in the event that a partner dies without leaving a will.

Republicans argued that domestic partnerships were an attempt to impose same-sex marriage in the state.

“If this bill would have passed, New Mexico would have been ripe for a court challenge as other states have experienced with gay marriage court rulings,” said House Republican Whip Bill Payne.

Five other US states – California, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, and Vermont – and the District of Columbia have enacted domestic partner or civil unions laws.

Gay marriage is legal in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

The Human Rights Campaign, the America’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights group, said it was disappointed that state Senators in New Mexico rejected the Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act by 25 votes to 17.

Ten Democrats helped to defeat it.

“I share the sadness of everyone in New Mexico who hoped this vote would go differently and the state would take a step toward recognising equality for all New Mexicans.” said HRC President Joe Solmonese.

“Yesterday’s vote helps no one in the state of New Mexico.

“It protects no one’s marriage. It grants dignity to no couple’s relationship. It does nothing to ensure that all families receive the equal rights and responsibilities they deserve. But no one is giving up.

“It has been a long, hard struggle for couples and families in New Mexico who simply want equal rights, and this effort continues, as it does across the nation.”

New Mexico’s legislature considered similar legislation in each of the last two years, and the bill has, in the past, come within a single vote of passing.

Catholic bishops had encouraged their congregations, who make up about a quarter of the state’s population, to lobby their Senators to oppose the bill.

“The Roman Catholic Church remained silent on domestic partnerships in New Mexico in past debates and some are saying this change in position came on direction straight from the Vatican and The Pope himself,” reports lesbian website Lez Get Real.

“For the past five weeks the bishops have been having parishioners call New Mexico lawmakers and pressure them to vote against the domestic partnership law.

“Supporters of the bill said they had tried to hammer out a compromise during the 24 hours leading up to the vote and changed some of the original language and taking out words like spouse, marriage and references to either word in an effort to placate the bishops and Republican opposition.”

The New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops says on its website that it opposes the domestic partnerships bill because “any legal instrument that grants spousal rights is interperted by the courts as marriage.”

New Mexico’s Governor, former Democratic party Presidential candidate Bill Richardson, said:

“I’m disappointed by the Senate’s actions today in defeating what is fundamentally an issue of civil rights and equality.”