DENVER — Democrats are expected to take the first step to grant Colorado gay couples rights similar to marriage with a civil unions bill that's one of the most emotional issues for lawmakers this year.

A Senate committee is hearing testimony Wednesday from gay couples and supporters of traditional marriage on the civil unions legislation. It's the first of several votes before the bill becomes law.

Supporters say gay couples deserve rights similar to married people so they can protect their families, like the ability to make medical decisions for their loved ones. Opponents say the bill undermines traditional marriage and doesn't protect the religious beliefs of those who oppose civil unions.

Democrats tried unsuccessfully the last two years to pass civil unions. House Republicans have defeated the measure, but Democrats now control the Legislature.