The Hawaii Senate is expected to give final legislative approval on Tuesday to a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in a state long popular as a wedding and honeymoon destination and regarded as a pioneer in advancing the cause of gay matrimony.
Governor Neil Abercrombie has indicated he would swiftly sign the measure into law once it clears the Senate, making Hawaii the 15th U.S. state to extend marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples.
Hawaii's Supreme Court ruled two decades ago that barring same-sex marriage was discriminatory in a landmark opinion that propelled the gay rights movement nationwide but also sparked a backlash that has kept marriage limited to heterosexual couples in the Aloha state.
The vote in Hawaii comes at a time of increasing momentum for gay marriage in U.S. courts, at the ballot box and statehouses across the country.
With public opinion shifting, Abercrombie, a first-term Democrat, called the Democratic-controlled 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 state Senate first approved the measure on Oct. 30, in a 20-4 vote. Three Democrats joined the state's only Republican senator in voting against the bill.
The bill then passed the state House of Representatives, 30-19, last Friday with the support of just one of that chamber's six Republicans. Thirteen Democrats voted against it. But because the legislation was amended in the House, it must return to the Senate for final adoption there.
The Senate was expected to quickly approve the House-passed version on Tuesday after returning from a three-day recess, and will then send it on to the governor for his signature. As currently drafted, the bill would take effect on Dec. 2.
Allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry has been vehemently opposed in Hawaii by religious conservatives, as it has been elsewhere in the country.
PROTECTING RELIGIOUS RIGHTS
Supporters of the bill say it was crafted to address opponents' concerns that legalizing same-sex marriage would infringe on religious freedoms. The bill explicitly exempts clergy from having to perform gay weddings if doing so would conflict with their faith.
It also grants immunity from administrative, civil and legal liability to religious organizations and officials for refusing to provide goods and services, or their facilities or grounds for same-sex wedding solemnizations or celebrations.
Abercrombie, who served more than two decades in the U.S. Congress 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.
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 lawmakers gave final approval to a same-sex marriage bill on Nov. 5, and Governor Pat Quinn is expected to sign that measure into law later this month.
The debate has long divided Hawaii. In 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled it was discriminatory to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples.
But the legislature voted the following year to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples, passing a law at odds with the courts. And in 1998, Hawaii voters took the courts out of the equation by approving a constitutional amendment giving the legislature power to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples.