The governor of the US state of Delaware has signed a civil unions bill into law.

As he signed the bill yesterday, Governor Jack Markell told gay couples in a 500-strong audience: “Your family is now equal under the law.”

Once the law comes into force on January 1st 2012, gay couples in the state will have “all of the same rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities as married persons under Delaware law,” the measure says.

Faiths may perform the ceremonies if they wish, but cannot be forced to.

Delaware joins six other states in allowing civil unions for gay couples.

Five US states and the District of Columbia allow gay couples to marry.