HONOLULU Hawaii's House of Representatives approved a bill on Friday to legalize same-sex marriage in the overwhelmingly Democratic state popular as a wedding and honeymoon destination, paving the way for anticipated final passage in the Senate next week.
The measure cleared the House in a late-night vote of 30-19, with six of the chamber's seven Republicans joining 13 Democrats in opposing the legislation. Two Democrats were absent for the vote.
Governor Neil Abercrombie has indicated he would swiftly sign the measure into law, making Hawaii the 15th or 16th U.S. state to extend marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples, depending on when the governor of Illinois signs that state's bill.
As currently drafted, the Hawaii bill would take effect on December 2.
"This is about a move toward acceptance, tolerance and compassion," Representative Sylvia Luke, chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, said as the House floor debate began hours before the vote.
The vote in Hawaii comes at a time of increasing momentum for gay marriage in the courts, at the ballot box and statehouses across the country.
Hawaii's Supreme Court ruled two decades ago that banning same-sex marriage was discriminatory, helping to advance gay rights nationwide but also sparking a backlash that kept the legislature passing a bill on the issue.
With public opinion shifting, Abercrombie, a first-term Democrat, called the state legislature into special session late last month to consider a bill that rolls back a 1994 statute defining marriage as between a man and a woman only.
The Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure last Wednesday, with a 20-4 vote. Three Democrats joined the state's only Republican senator in voting against the bill.
Because the measure was amended in the House, it must return to the Senate for final adoption. The Senate is precluded by legislative rules from acting before next Tuesday, aides say.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Clayton Hee was quoted in the Honolulu Star Advertiser as saying he expected the Senate would accept the House version quickly.
GAY RIGHTS VS. RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Abercrombie, who served more than two decades in the U.S. House of Representatives 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.
The governor has said the proposal was crafted to address opponents' concerns that legalizing gay marriage would infringe on religious freedoms. The proposal exempts clergy and churches from having to perform same-sex marriages.
Only six states and the District of Columbia recognized same-sex marriage a year ago, but the 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, whose legislature gave final approval to a same-sex marriage bill on Tuesday, would become the 15th state, unless Abercrombie manages to beat Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to the punch.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Louise Ireland and Sonya Hepinstall)