By Treena Shapiro
HONOLULU (Reuters) – The Hawaii Senate gave final legislative approval on Tuesday to a bill extending marriage rights to same-sex couples in a state popular as a wedding and honeymoon destination and regarded as a pioneer in advancing the cause of gay matrimony.
The measure cleared the Democratic-controlled state Senate on a 19-4 vote to cheers and applause from hundreds of supporters in flowered garland leis who filled the visitor galleries and the Capitol rotunda.
Hundreds more danced for joy on the sidewalks in front of the Capitol building.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat who called a special session to consider the bill, is expected to sign it into law on Wednesday, an aide to the governor said. That would make Hawaii the 15th U.S. state to legalize gay marriage.
The measure, set to take effect on December 2, rolls back a 1994 statute defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, hailed passage of the bill in a statement.
“Whenever freedom and equality are affirmed, our country becomes stronger,” said Obama, the first U.S. president to support gay marriage. “By giving loving gay and lesbian couples the right to marry if they choose, Hawaii exemplifies the values we hold dear as a nation.”
Amended in the state House of Representatives last week to strengthen exemptions for clergy and religious groups, the measure easily cleared the Senate with the body’s lone Republican joining three Democrats in opposing it. Two other Democrats were absent.
The path to legal gay marriage in Hawaii has been long and bumpy. The state’s Supreme Court ruled two decades ago that barring same-sex nuptials was discriminatory in a landmark opinion that propelled the gay rights movement nationwide.
That ruling also sparked a backlash that has until now kept marriage limited to heterosexual couples in Hawaii.
The reversal by Hawaii lawmakers comes at a time of increasing momentum for gay marriage in the courts, at the ballot box and in statehouses across the United States.
The trend has gained steam since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that married same-sex couples are eligible for federal benefits, striking down a key part of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act. In a separate ruling the same day, the high court paved the way for lifting a ban on gay marriage in California.
The justices stopped short in both 5-4 decisions of declaring a nationwide right to same-sex marriage. Proponents and opponents of gay marriage have vowed to continue their battle state by state.
SPEAKING OF FAITH
A state court judge last week refused a request from opponents for a temporary restraining order to block action on the legislation but said he would examine the constitutionality of the bill once it was enacted.
Allowing gays to marry has been vehemently opposed in Hawaii by religious conservatives, as elsewhere in the country.
“You can try to force people to do something they don’t believe in, but you can’t make it so,” Republican state Senator Sam Slom said before the vote.
Supporters say the Hawaii bill was crafted to address concerns that legalizing same-sex marriage would infringe on religious freedoms. The bill explicitly exempts clergy from having to perform gay weddings if doing so would conflict with their religious beliefs.
It also grants immunity from administrative, civil and legal liability to religious organizations and officials for refusing to provide goods and services, or their facilities or grounds, for same-sex weddings and related events.
“This is about government recognizing two individuals – government, not churches,” said Democratic state Senator Will Espero during the debate.
In 2003, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to permit gay marriage. A year ago, only six states and the District of Columbia recognized gay marriage. That number has since more than doubled, due in most cases to litigation over the issue.
Three states – Maine, Maryland and Washington – became the first to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples by popular vote with passage of ballot initiatives last November.
Last month, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dropped his legal opposition to gay marriage, making his state the 14th to legalize same-sex weddings.
Illinois lawmakers gave final approval to a same-sex marriage bill on November 5, and Governor Pat Quinn is expected to sign that measure into law this month.
The debate has long divided Hawaii. In 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled it was discriminatory to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples.
But the legislature voted the following year to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples, passing a law at odds with the courts. And in 1998, Hawaii voters took the courts out of the equation by approving a constitutional amendment giving the legislature power to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples.
Abercrombie, who served more than two decades in the U.S. Congress before running for governor in 2010, signed a same-sex civil unions bill into law two years ago. His predecessor, Republican Linda Lingle, vetoed a civil unions bill in 2010.