A Rhode Island Senate panel are today considering a bill that would allow gay and lesbian couples to be joined in civil unions.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on the measure, two weeks after it was approved by the House.

Democratic Representative Peter Petrarca suggested the bill after House Speaker Gordon Fox – who is gay and supports marriage equality – announced that a gay marriage proposal sponsored by Democratic Representative Arthur Handy had “no realistic chance” of being approved in the General Assembly this session.

Mr Fox’s announcement that he would back civil unions – as opposed to marriage – for gay couples drew considerable protest from marriage equality supporters.

The compromise also failed to placate those who are against gay marriage, as they claimed the law would be used as a stepping stone to make gay marriage a reality.

If the bill is approved, Rhode Island would become the fourth state after New Jersey, Hawaii, and Illinois to offer such unions to lesbian and gay couples.

A civil unions bill in Colorado died in committee earlier this year, but an Illinois bill came into effect yesterday, with today being the first day couples can actually exchange vows.

The state’s law gives gay couples most of the benefits of marriage.