(CNN) -- In a move largely seen as a compromise over the rights that can be afforded to gay and lesbian couples, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee on Saturday signed into law a bill that legalizes civil unions, making his state the fifth in the nation to allow them.
The bill -- which was signed just over a week after New York legalized same-sex marriage -- will take effect later Saturday, according to the governor's spokesman Christian Vareika.
The law will provide same-sex couples with a host of new state tax breaks, health-care benefits and greater ease of inheritance.
Such unions are currently permitted in New Jersey and Illinois, and will be allowed in Delaware and Hawaii beginning January 1, 2012. California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada also allow for "comprehensive domestic partnerships," largely considered an equivalent to their civil union counterparts.
Earlier this week, and despite robust opposition to the measure, the bill sailed through the state Senate by a count of 21-16.
But it also drew sharp criticism from religious leaders and opposition groups who say it will lead to court-ordered action that eventually legalizes same-sex marriage: Similar legal action in Connecticut and Massachusetts resulted in those states adopting same-sex marriage laws.
Chafee, an independent who is supportive of same-sex marriage -- says civil unions are "a step in the right direction," according to his spokesman, Michael Trainor.
Gay rights activists -- like Marriage Equality Rhode Island -- say that while they support the civil union bill, they would have preferred legislation that permits couples to wed.
Currently, Rhode Island and Maine are the only states in New England that do not permit same-sex marriage.
Iowa and the District of Columbia also allow marriages between gay and lesbian couples.