Hawaii lawmakers OK civil unions

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HONOLULU (AP) — 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.

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