The Hawaii Senate [official website] on Wednesday approved a measure [text, PDF] to legalize same-sex marriage in the state. The legislation, which has been sent on to the House after a 20-4 vote [materials] in favor of the bill, recognizes marriages between people of the same sex and grants to these couples the same rights, benefits and protections currently given to married opposite-sex couples. While the Hawaii legislature has already extended the right to enter into civil unions to same-sex couples, these unions are not recognized by federal law. The legislation works to take into account the concerns expressed by members of the state's religious community who oppose same-sex marriage, exempting religious organizations [press release] from any liability for refusing the use of their facilities for any marriage celebration as long as they do not make those facilities available to the public for marriage celebrations for a profit. Senator Clayton Hee [official profile], who called the passing of this bill a historic step towards equality, said that the inclusion of this language in the measure "represents the Senate's best effort to strike a balance between religious freedom and equal rights."
The legalization of same-sex marriage has proven to be a cause of division in Hawaii. Governor Neil Abercrombie signed [JURIST report] the same-sex civil unions bill into law in 2011, legalizing same-sex civil unions in the state. This legislation went into effect in January 2012 after being approved by the state's senate in an 18-5 vote. A similar bill was vetoed [JURIST report] in 2010 by former governor Linda Lingle, who cited concerns that the bill was "essentially marriage by another name" and said that the issue should be decided directly by the people of Hawaii. Following the signing of the same-sex civil unions bill in 2011, a lesbian couple filed suit [JURIST report] in the US District Court for the District of Hawaii, challenging the state's denial of same-sex marriage and claiming that they were being denied a "fundamental right." Although the court denied [JURIST report] the state law challenge in 2012, Abercrombie supported the plaintiffs' claims, publicly stating that he disagreed with the decision and that "[t]o refuse individuals the right to marry on the basis of sexual orientation or gender is discrimination in light of our civil union law."