HONOLULU (AP) — Civil unions for Hawaii same-sex partners cleared the state House of Representatives on Friday and face a final vote in the Senate before advancing to the governor for his signature.
The Senate, which already passed a similar version of the bill last month, could take action on the legislation next week, and new Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie has said he supports civil unions.
Before the House's 31-19 vote was tallied, a small crowd of supporters wearing rainbow-colored lei applauded and cheered from the chamber's gallery as representatives gave speeches in support of civil unions.
"It's a stepping stone toward getting equal rights for everyone," said Scott Larimer of Honolulu following the vote as he stood beside his partner. "We deserve equality."
Hawaii would become the seventh state to grant essentially the same rights of marriage to same-sex couples through civil unions or similar laws.
Five states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage.
Opponents of civil unions, many of them Christians, wore white shirts in a show of unity and said the measure will lead to same-sex marriage.
"We don't think that lifestyle is God's best for this community," said Lisa Cockett of Hawaii Kai. "A lot of legislators believe it's not going to become same-sex marriage, but I think they're being fooled."
The bill appeared to be heading toward passage following three years of thousands-strong rallies, lengthy public hearings and election battles.
No significant legal or political obstacles stand in the way, and Democratic legislative leaders have made the bill a priority.
Even though the Senate previously voted for the civil unions measure 19-6, it must consider the bill one last time because the House amended it. The minor changes clarify that civil union partners could file state taxes jointly and get divorced in family court.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Clayton Hee has said he's inclined to accept the House's changes to the bill, support it during a final vote and send it to Abercrombie.
The Legislature also passed a civil unions bill last year, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican.
"It's all about being treated like everybody else," said Rep. Blake Oshiro, D-Aiea-Halawa, who is gay. "Let today be that day where we move ever closer to justice for all."
Other representatives argued that civil unions are same-sex marriage by another name.
"It's basically shaking the institution of marriage," said Rep. Joe Souki, D-Waihee-Wailuku. "It's been challenged, and it will never be the same."
The Rainbow State has been a battleground in the gay rights movement for nearly 20 years, dating to a 1993 state Supreme Court decision that nearly legalized gay marriage. The ruling would have made Hawaii the first state to allow same-sex couples to wed, but it didn't take effect while voters were given a chance to decide.
They responded five years later by overwhelmingly passing the nation's first "defense of marriage" constitutional amendment, approved by 69 percent of voters who gave the Legislature the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples.
The amendment resulted in a law banning gay marriage in Hawaii but left the door open for civil unions.
Since then, 29 other states also have enacted defense of marriage amendments.