In other places, attempts to offer protections for gay people, which many see as a step toward same-sex marriage, have been volatile. In Pocatello, Idaho, a community with a significant Mormon population, the city council narrowly rejected an ordinance in April aimed at making discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity a misdemeanor crime. A month earlier, after Royal Oak, Mich., adopted an ordinance to ban discrimination against gays in housing and employment, a petition seeking to repeal the measure by referendum put it on hold.
In Bisbee, the town's foray into same-sex recognition drew fiery opposition. On the night the city council originally approved the ordinance, several people chastised members for flouting "God's law."
The conservative Center for Arizona Policy, which supported Arizona's 2008 constitutional amendment that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, deemed Bisbee's actions illegal.
Gene Conners, the Bisbee councilman who proposed sanctioning civil unions, says meetings between town attorneys and Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne led to the revised ordinance announced Tuesday. The original measure would have given those in same-sex civil unions the same rights as married couples in areas including community property and inheritance, and that is beyond the town's jurisdiction, Mr. Horne said at a recent news conference.
To placate Horne, Bisbee took out of its civil-union ordinance references to inheritance, property, and adoption rights. The compromise shows how, over the years, cities and towns have devised myriad creative ways to offer same-sex couples legal protections while trying to not overstep their authority, says Ms. Pizer of Lambda Legal.
Whether local ordinances can pass legal muster depends on how wide the gaps are between cities and states and whether courts are willing to reconcile the two sets of rules, says Marc Spindelman, who teaches family and constitutional law at Ohio State University.