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By Star-Advertiser staff

POSTED: 10:02 a.m. HST, Nov 12, 2013

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The state Senate, as expected, overwhelmingly approved a marriage equity bill today, sending the measure to Gov. Neil Abercrombie who has vowed to sign it and make Hawaii the 15th state to legalize same-sex marriage.

An invitation-only bill-signing ceremony is set for 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Hawaii Convention Center's Liliu Theater. The event will be streamed live at and broadcast on 'Olelo's channel 55. 

Today's 19-4 vote, while historic, was a somewhat anti-climatic end to the legislative special session that began Oct. 28 and included more than 55 hours of public testimony, followed by two day-long sessions in the House where lawmakers approved the bill late Friday night in a 30-19 vote.

"I look forward to signing this significant piece of legislation, which provides marriage equity and fully recognizes and protects religious freedoms," Abercrombie said in a statement after the Senate vote.

Click here for today's vote breakdown, which is on Derrick DePledge's Political Radar blog.

President Barack Obama issued a statement soon after the vote, saying, "I want to congratulate the Hawaii State Legislature on passing legislation in support of marriage equality."

"I've always been proud to have been born in Hawaii, and today's vote makes me even prouder. And Michelle and I extend our best wishes to all those in Hawaii whose families will now be given the security and respect they deserve," he said.

More than half the state Senate lawmakers spoke in support of the bill today, with many urging the public to come together to heal divisions within the community.

"This is nothing more than the expansion of aloha in Hawaii," said Sen. J. Kalani English, a Democrat from Maui.

Sen. Sam Slom, the chamber's only Republican, said the government should stay out of legislating marriage. "People have differences, and you can't legislate morality. You can try, but you can't do it," he said.

Once the bill is signed into law, gay couples could get married in Hawaii as soon as Dec. 2. Clergy would have the right to refuse to perform gay weddings. Churches and other religious organizations would be able to decline to provide goods, services and facilities for gay weddings and celebrations if it violates their religious beliefs.

Two senators -- Donovan Dela Cruz and Brian T. Taniguchi -- were excused from today's vote. The four no votes were Senate President Donna Mercado Kim, Sens. Mike Gabbard, Ronald Kouchi, and Slom.

Senators took up the bill a second time because of changes made in the House, where the bill was amended and passed after a five-day public hearing and two lengthy floor sessions. An earlier version of the bill passed the Senate 20-4 with one lawmaker excused.

The vote today brings a legislative end to a decades-long journey for proponents and opponents of giving gay couples the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples. The state Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that denying same-sex couples marriage licenses was a violation of equal protection under the state Constitution. The court's ruling influenced Congress to approve the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which restricted marriage to heterosexual couples, and prompted Hawaii voters in 1998 to approve a constitutional amendment that gave the state Legislature the power to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the federal Defense of Marriage Act was an unconstitutional violation of due process and equal protection, allowing same-sex couples who are legally married to receive federal benefits. The court left it up to the states to decide whether to legalize gay marriage. Abercrombie responded to the court's ruling by calling the Legislature into special session.

While the legislative action on the bill ends, opponents vow to continue the fight in court. On Thursday, Circuit Judge Karl Sakamoto declined to issue a restraining order sought by state Rep. Bob McDermott to halt action on the special session's same-sex marriage legislation. But the judge said once the law is adopted, he'll consider its constitutionality. 

McDermott (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) sent Abercrombie a letter on Friday stating that he would seek a temporary restraining order in Circuit Court to prevent the state from issuing marriage licences to gay couples.

McDermott contends that the 1998 constitutional amendment that gave the Legislature the power to define marriage as between heterosexual couples trumps any statutory change to the law. He insists that another vote by the people is necessary to redefine marriage.

Sakamoto on Thursday raised questions about how voters who ratified the 1998 amendment knew that it authorized the Legislature to later approve same-sex marriages.

In his statement today, Abercrombie said, "I believe this bill provides equal rights for all people, is legally sound, and is in accord with the Hawaii State Constitution."

Once Abercrombie signs the bill Wednesday, Hawaii will be the 15th state plus the District of Columbia to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. The Illinois legislature passed a similar measure last week, but Gov. Pat Quinn said he would sign a the bill into law at a ceremony in Chicago on Nov. 20.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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