Trying to avoid a heated battle over gay marriage, Hawaii lawmakers are considering a renewed push to grant same-sex couples similar benefits through civil unions.

Democratic legislators, who hold overwhelming majorities in both the state House and Senate, are supporting a proposed civil union bill as one of the party's top priorities for this year's legislative session. If it passes, Hawaii would become only the fifth state to recognize either civil unions or gay marriage.

"Committed couples, regardless of their sexual preference or orientation, should have the same rights. That's the bottom line — we should treat people equally," said Gary Hooser, the state senate majority leader. "There's broad support among Democratic party members."

He said if approved, the civil unions law would grant same-sex couples the same rights and benefits as married couples. Hawaii already gives some rights — in areas of insurance, property, pension and hospital visitation — to same-sex partners through its reciprocal benefits law.

Republican Gov. Linda Lingle won't take a position on the bill until it is approved by the Legislature, said Linda Smith, her senior policy adviser.

"We'll give every bill a fair look if and when it comes to her desk," Smith said.

Hawaii nearly legalized gay marriages more than a decade ago, before stiff public opposition came from family advocacy groups and religious groups.

A decision by the Hawaii Supreme Court would have allowed same-sex marriages, but a 1998 constitutional amendment and a law defined marriage as between two people of opposite sexes.

This year, the civil union bill hasn't yet generated a similar public outcry.

The Catholic church in Hawaii opposes the idea, said spokeswoman Kelly Rosati. A spokeswoman for the Mormon church in Utah said she was not aware of any institutional involvement in Hawaii's civil union debate.

Vermont and Connecticut already have civil union laws and New Jersey's will take effect next month. Massachusetts is the only state to allow same-sex marriages.