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Hawaii Lawmakers OK Civil Unions, Send Bill to Gov

HONOLULU -- A bill allowing same-sex civil unions that prompted some of Hawaii's biggest rallies is headed to the governor after the state House of Representatives gave it final legislative approval Thursday.

The House voted 31-20 in favor of the measure, which passed the Senate in January.

Republican Gov. Linda Lingle has not said whether she will make civil unions law or veto the bill.

The measure grants gay and lesbian couples the same rights and benefits that the state provides to married couples. If it's signed into law, Hawaii will become one of six states -- the others are 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 Washington, D.C. permit same-sex marriage: Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Civil-union supporters wearing rainbow-colored lei cried, jumped and screamed for joy outside the House chamber at the Hawaii Capitol.

"It extends the spirit of aloha and acceptance one step further," Don Bentz after the vote.

Disappointed opponents wearing red "iVote" buttons as a threat to legislators this election season quickly departed, with only a few lagging behind.

"Civil unions are a step down the very slippery slope toward legalizing same-sex marriage," said Rachel Nakasaki, a Christian who joined other members of religious groups in fighting civil unions.

The issue was revived on the last day of this year's legislative session when Democratic House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro made a motion to reconsider it.

"I'm absolutely stunned," said civil-union supporter Michael Golojuch Jr. "It has given me faith in the legislative process. They did what's right. I'm trying to enjoy the moment as much as possible."

The bill was written so that civil unions would be available to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples to avoid claims of discrimination.

"More people in Hawaii are going to have the protections and rights they need," said Alan Spector, an activist for the pro-civil unions group Equality Hawaii.

The House declined to act earlier this year because of fears that the Democratic-controlled House would have too few votes to override Lingle if she vetoed it.

It's unclear what action Lingle will take. She previously said she wouldn't take a position on the issue until a bill passed the Legislature and reached her desk. If she were to veto the bill, the House lacks the two-thirds majority needed to override her.

"We'll have to wait and see what she is going to do," Oshiro said. "I would strongly encourage her to take a serious look at the issue. ... It's not about marriage, it's just about equality."

Civil-union opponents said Hawaii voters will be upset at the Legislature's unexpected action.

"This is going to cause chaos in the community," said Republican Rep. Gene Ward. "It's untimely, it's unfair, and I don't think this is a wise move to take."

In January, no roll call was taken on the decision to postpone the vote, which shielded representatives from having their positions on the record. This time, roll call votes put every representative's position on the record.

Last year, the proposal easily won preliminary passage in the Legislature, but stalled in May after opponents lobbied and held a state Capitol rally attended by several thousand protesters.

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.