By Tim Gaynor
BISBEE, Ariz., April 2 (Reuters) - A former Arizona copper mining town reborn as an artists' community defied the threat of legal action on Tuesday and became the first city in the conservative southwestern state to allow civil unions between same-sex couples.
The city council in Bisbee, a city of 5,600 residents in southeast Arizona, voted five to two to pass a measure allowing any couple to join in a civil ceremony, regardless of their sex or sexual orientation.
"We're just acknowledging the people that live here. It's a big step in the right direction (and) for a tiny town ... it's pretty neat," Gene Conners, the first-term council member who proposed the measure said shortly after it passed.
A city founded on a mountain of copper ore in 1902, Bisbee reinvented itself as a laid-back artists' enclave after the local Phelps Dodge mine shut in 1975.
The Council's vote comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing whether to strike down a law that denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, in a move that would reflect growing support in the United States for gay marriage.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll last month found that 55 percent of Americans surveyed said married gay and lesbian couples should be able to qualify for Social Security survivor payments and other benefits provided to married heterosexual couples.
Arizona's constitution recognizes marriage as a union of one man and one woman. Hours before the vote, the state's attorney general, Tom Horne, wrote to the council warning it had "no authority to pass the ordinance" and that if it was approved he would seek to have it blocked in court before it could come into effect.
"The only proper way to change a statute is through the legislature, not through actions of the city council attempting to change a state statute within its boundaries," Horne said in a statement. He did not make further comment after the vote.
City Attorney John A. MacKinnon told the meeting late Tuesday he did not believe Horne had a "real case", adding that he believed he wanted "to make a political statement".
CITY HALL CERTIFICATES
The ordinance in Bisbee, which a popular local bumper sticker describes as a "liberal oasis in conservative desert," draws on language in a state civil union bill currently stalled in the Republican-controlled Arizona legislature.
A successful legal challenge notwithstanding, the ordinance is set to come into effect in May. Couples will be able to go to City Hall and pay $76 - the cost of a marriage license at the county courthouse - for a civil union certificate.
It will only be valid within the limits of the city, a picturesque trove of landmark buildings, galleries, coffee shops and old miners' cottages perched in the folds of the Mule Mountains overlooking Mexico.
Benefits extended to couples include the right to visit their sick partner in the hospital, obtain a family pass for the city swimming pool, and, for city employees, the chance for their partner to buy into their benefits - rights currently denied to same-sex couples.
At the lively council meeting late on Tuesday, two opponents expressed concerns that the measure could hurt tourism and snarl the city in costly litigation, while several others opposed it on religious grounds, calling it an "abomination".
"As far as I know, marriage is still between a man and a woman," resident Regina Drybread told the packed meeting. She added that while the ordinance only allowed for civil unions, "in reality it's the first step to legalizing same-sex marriage".
But other residents embraced the ordinance, among them James Cool, who said that same-sex couples were one of the last minorities to be discriminated against in the United States - although that was now changing.
"The train in this country has left the station on civil unions, just as it did on interracial marriage and voting rights," he said. "If you don't like civil unions, don't get one," he added to cheers. (Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Pravin Char)