Hawaii is a step closer to joining a small group of other states in allowing same-sex civil unions.
In a move that still needs the governor's signature to become law, the House of Representatives Thursday night approved a measure that has drawn some of the state's biggest protest rallies.
Republican Gov. Linda Lingle hasn't said whether she'll reject it or sign it into law but her office said later that she will carefully review the bill.
The House voted 31-20 in favor of the legislation, which had been stalled but was unexpectedly revived on the last day of this year's legislative session. The Senate passed it in January.
The measure would grant gay and lesbian couples the same rights and benefits that the state provides to married couples.
If approved, Hawaii will become one of six states — along with California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington — to grant essentially all the rights of marriage to same-sex couples without authorizing marriage itself.
Five other states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage: Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The Aloha State has been a battleground in the gay rights movement since the early 1990s.
A 1993 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling nearly made Hawaii the first state to legalize same-sex marriage before voters in the state overwhelmingly approved the nation's first "defense of marriage" constitutional amendment in 1998.
The measure gave the Legislature the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples. It resulted in a law banning gay marriage in Hawaii but left the door open for civil unions.
This year the issue has proven divisive in Hawaii with religious groups arguing that civil unions are a step toward legalizing same-sex marriage. During one of the biggest ever state rallies, several thousand people protesting the measure rode buses to the Hawaii Capitol last year following Sunday church services.
The gay and lesbian community urged lawmakers to act on their principles rather than back down in the face of public pressure from opponents threatening to vote them out of office.
Civil-union supporters wearing rainbow-colored leis, or flower necklaces, jumped and screamed for joy outside the House chamber following the vote.
"Hawaii is the Aloha State, and this vote shows that the greater community has love and acceptance for everyone," said supporter Van Law.
Disappointed civil union opponents wearing red "iVote" buttons as a warning to legislators this election season quickly departed the Hawaii Capitol, with only a few lagging behind.
"Civil unions are a step down the very slippery slope toward legalizing same-sex marriage," said Rachel Nakasaki, a Christian who believes traditional marriage between a man and a woman should be preserved.
Hawaii's civil union legislation appeared to be dead in January, when the House didn't take a vote on the measure and postponed it indefinitely out of fears that Lingle would veto.
The issue was revived Thursday after every other bill introduced this year had been acted on. Democratic House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro made the motion to reconsider the bill, although the House fell three votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the governor.
The bill was written so that civil unions would be available to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples to avoid claims of discrimination.
"Equality feels really good," said Suzanne King, who said Hawaii would recognize her Massachusetts marriage to her partner as a civil union if the bill becomes law. "It allows us to strengthen our family."
If Lingle vetoes the bill, it's unlikely lawmakers would return to the Capitol to try to override her. They lack enough votes, and it's an election year where legislators are hesitant to take stands on contentious social issues unless they're forced to, as they were during Thursday's roll-call vote.
"I'm looking forward to not coming back," said Democratic Speaker of the House Calvin Say.
The bill is HB444.
On the Web:
Hawaii Legislature: http://capitol.hawaii.gov/
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