Gov. Gray Davis on Friday signed a bill that will give domestic partners in California many of the legal rights and obligations of married couples in matters involving children, money and property -- a measure that gays and lesbians hailed as a historic step toward equal rights.

The new law, while stopping short of recognizing gay and lesbian marriage, positions California as a national leader in the rights and obligations it affords gays and lesbians, experts said.

"I think we are at our best when we extend rights to every Californian no matter who they are or who they love," Davis said to cheers from a raucous standing-room-only crowd at San Francisco's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender center in the Castro District.

"I believe to my core that we are all God's children," the governor continued.

Republicans in the Legislature had strongly opposed the measure, saying the state should recognize only unions between men and women.

The law will grant state-registered domestic partners all of the same rights, protections, benefits, obligations and duties as married spouses regarding property, children and arrangements after death. It will, for example, give a partner the right to financial support and child custody after a partnership is dissolved, and it will give a survivor the right to collect his or her partner's government benefits. The law also will make partners responsible for one another's debt.

"This is a tremendous leap forward," said Daniel Zingale, the governor's Cabinet secretary and a longtime advocate for gay rights. "This takes us into the area of family law, the things which make for the fabric of a committed relationship. It's monumental in a national sense. It positions California in the forefront of equal rights and responsibility for lesbian and gay Californians."

GOP Rejected Bill

But minority Republicans, who rejected the bill in both the Assembly and the Senate, said it undermines marriage and subverts the will of voters who passed Proposition 22 in March 2000. That measure declares that only marriage between a man and a woman is recognized in California.

"This is a bill that looks at the people of California and says we don't care what you think," said Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R- Murrieta) during a debate in the 80-member Assembly, where the law barely passed by a 41-32 vote with all 32 Republicans voting no.

California recognizes domestic partnerships under legislation signed by Davis in 1999. But gay and lesbian couples have lacked many of the rights enjoyed by married couples, including those relating to family and financial issues.

Under the new law, which takes effect in January 2005, registered domestic partners who have been together for more than five years or who have children must consent to a Superior Court's jurisdiction in the event they wish to separate. If no children are involved, domestic partnerships can be dissolved within the first five years by filing papers with the California secretary of state without involving the courts. The effective date was deliberately delayed a year to give already registered couples time to decide if they are prepared to live up to the law's expanded responsibilities.

Domestic partners in California will still lack many of the rights of married couples, such as the right to file joint tax returns or the rights involving Social Security, Medicare and veterans' benefits.

"This bill creates a vehicle for rights and obligations in gay and lesbian committed relationships while avoiding the argument over gay marriage," said Zingale. "Most Californians strongly support equal rights and responsibilities for their lesbian and gay neighbors and coworkers, so this is in the mainstream of California thought. That's not to say this is a popular decision with everyone. But it is the right thing to do."

Vermont is the only state that offers comparable rights to gay partners, the result of a state court order rather than legislation.

Zingale said political considerations -- including the current attempt to recall Davis from office -- had nothing to do with the governor's decision to sign the bill.

"That's nonsense, and I feel very strongly about this," said Zingale. "This is a commitment that was forged by Gray Davis decades ago, when there were very few politicians willing to stand up for equal rights for lesbian and gay people."

Assemblyman Mark Leno, an openly gay Democrat from San Francisco, stood with Davis during the signing ceremony and declared that the governor's support for the measure showed courage. Leno noted how Davis opponents now wave "Recall Gay Davis" signs at rallies.

The legislation was the logical extension of rights first offered by the 1999 law recognizing domestic partnerships in California, supporters said.