(CNN) -- Calling it "a moment in our history," Delaware Gov. Jack Markell has signed a bill legalizing civil unions for same-sex couples in the state.
The bill, which was passed by state lawmakers in April, will take effect January 1.
"This bill is about a new energy and excitement," Markell said at the bill signing ceremony Wednesday night. "It's about a moment in our history that came about because people came together to work for it, because it became clear that Delaware's LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community is in fact part of every Delaware community. The greater good is served when we speak out and fight hard when we see that bias, prejudice or even outdated laws attempt to lessen any one of us."
The measure does not allow same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses, and religious institutions retain the right to refuse to solemnize such unions. Also under the bill, Delaware will recognize legal relationships that same-sex couples enter into in another jurisdiction, whether that is a civil union or a marriage, and treat the relationship as a civil union, according to Markell's office.
Gay-rights groups lauded the new law.
"Tonight is a wonderful night for LGBT equality in Delaware," said Lisa Goodman, president of Equality Delaware and the host of the bill-signing celebration, according to the statement issued by Markell's office.
"The governor's signature on this legislation moves same-sex couples in Delaware closer to equality," said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "... It is not a substitute for full legal marriage, but it provides fundamental security for same-sex couples that will allow them to take care of each other and their families. This is reason to celebrate."
Rep. Melanie George, the bill's sponsor in the Delaware House of Representatives, said she believes "with every fiber of my being that this is the right thing to do."
"Tonight, we say to loving and committed couples across the state who want the law to endorse the promise they made long ago in their hearts: 'Your love is equally valid and deserving. Your family is now equal under the law,'" Markell said.
The law makes Delaware the eighth state to offer civil unions or comprehensive domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The others are California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington. Couples in Illinois can begin applying for civil union licenses on June 1, according to the organization, and Hawaii's law takes effect January 1.
CNN's Ashley Hayes contributed to this report.