HONOLULU (AP) — The Hawaii Senate on Friday overwhelmingly approved civil unions for same-sex couples, a major step toward the proposal becoming law.
The state Senate voted 19-6 for the bill, which now goes to the state House of Representatives, where a nearly identical measure passed last year before it was vetoed by then-Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican.
But this year, Democrats who control the state Legislature said they want to quickly approve the bill and send it to new Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who has said he supports civil unions.
If the House and Abercrombie approve the measure, Hawaii would become the sixth state to grant some of the rights of marriage to same-sex couples without authorizing marriage itself. A civil unions bill also passed the Illinois Legislature last month.
Five states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage.
"Let's get beyond this. Let's realize what the spirit of aloha is all about, which means including people no matter their color, no matter their gender, no matter their lifestyle," said Sen. Malama Solomon, D-Hilo-Honokaa.
The civil unions measure was the first bill to get final approval by the state Senate in this year's legislative session.
Supporters of civil unions wore rainbow-colored lei and cheered the vote, saying it was a victory for equal rights.
"It's time. I'm almost in tears," said Dan Abrahamsson of Honolulu, who was at the Capitol with his partner. "We are a minority, and it's very important that the Legislature protect our human rights and our civil rights."
Reaction from opponents was muted, with many acknowledging it seemed inevitable the bill would pass. They said civil unions erode the traditional family structure of one man and one woman.
"We're trying to re-engineer what the family looks like, and I don't believe the state has the authority to make those calls," said Mike McGuire of Ewa Beach, who watched the vote with his 8-year-old son.
People on both sides said civil unions could be a step toward legalizing same-sex marriage, possibly through a future court challenge. Hawaii's version of civil unions gives committed gay couples the same state rights as marriage.
"This will force same-sex marriage on the people of Hawaii who have consistently shown their opposition," said Sen. Mike Gabbard, D-Kalaeloa-Makakilo, who was a leader in passing Hawaii's first-in-the-nation "defense of marriage" constitutional amendment a decade ago.
Religious groups strongly fought civil unions over the last two years, organizing thousands of their members at rallies and threatening election defeat for lawmakers who supported the unions.
But after only one incumbent state legislator who backed civil unions lost re-election in November, visible opposition diminished. The Senate gallery was about half full during Friday's vote.
Hawaii nearly legalized gay marriages more than a decade ago. A Hawaii Supreme Court decision would have allowed the practice, but 70 percent of voters approved the constitutional amendment in 1998 allowing the Legislature to reserve marriage for opposite-sex couples.