DENVER- Civil unions passed a voice vote on Monday that never came up in the 2012 session.

Democrats took control of the state House of Representatives in last year's election, leaving Republicans with no options to block a full floor vote this year.

"It's about love, and it's about family, and it's about equality under the law," House Speaker Mark Ferrandino said.

Republicans attempted to amend the bill four times in the hours-long debate.

They argued for letting voters decide the issue and for a so-called "conscience clause" to exempt religious organizations from recognizing civil unions.

Several gay rights activists watched in the gallery.

Pamela Thiele and Lauren Fortmiller, who refer to each other as spouses, felt demonized in that portion of the debate.

"They just have to hate us. They have to hate us. They can't help it," Thiele said.

Civil unions opponents were disappointed at that reaction.

"We're only trying to protect the religious rights and freedoms of those who don't agree with those couples in the gallery, and that's not hate," said Rep. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs.) "That's just a matter of religious and spiritual disagreement."

In the end, the Republican amendments failed and the bill passed on a voice vote. A final recorded vote is expected Tuesday.

This sets the stage for the first legal civil unions to be officiated on May 1.

"We'll be first in line in Jefferson County man," Thiele said. "We're there!"

Thiele and Fortmiller say more important than their own legal protection is the message the vote sends to gay kids.

"These kids can't be discouraged anymore," Fortmiller said.

"With this policy, kids now learn that who we are is okay and they don't have to kill themselves," Thiele said.

Gov. John Hickenooper's office has yet to schedule a signing ceremony for the bill, but a staffer says that may happen next week.

Meantime, gay rights advocates hope this victory could lead to more acceptance of the idea of gay marriage, which was banned by Colorado voters in 2006.