Hawaii lawmakers approve civil unions for gay couples

HONOLULU Wed Feb 16, 2011 7:32pm EST

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HONOLULU (Reuters) - Hawaii state legislators on Wednesday approved civil unions for gay couples, and Gov. Neil Abercrombie said he would sign it into law.

The Hawaii Senate approved the proposed law by a vote of 18-5, sending it to Abercrombie for his signature. It had earlier been approved by the House.

Throughout his campaign last fall, Abercrombie said he supported laws giving same-sex couples in civil unions the same rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities of spouses in a marriage.

"I have always believed that civil unions respect our diversity, protect people's privacy, and reinforce our core values of equality and aloha," Abercrombie said in a statement after the vote. "For me this bill represents equal rights for all the people of Hawaii."

The law Abercrombie will sign is essentially the same as the measure that then-Governor Linda Lingle, a Republican, vetoed in July when she cited a "flawed" legal process as her reason for not giving her approval.

It would make the Aloha State the seventh state to grant essentially the same rights of marriage to same-sex couples through civil unions or similar laws.

Five U.S. states and the District of Columbia issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New Jersey allows civil unions.

As lawmakers debated the measure, residents from both sides of the issue packed the gallery. Those supporting Civil Unions wore rainbow silk-flowered lei. After the vote, the gallery erupted in cheers and clapping.

Republican Sen. Sam Slom urged his fellow members to vote against it because he said the government has no business mandating marriages.

Tara O'Neill, president of the gay activist group Pride Alliance praised the measure.

"I have a great sense of pride for the Legislature that was able to see the big picture of equality for Hawaii," O'Neill said.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb)

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