Hawaii's Senate has voted to extend the same rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities of spouses in a marriage to "partners in a civil union" - both homosexual and heterosexual.
With Friday's 18-7 vote, HB 444 has enough support from the Senate to override a possible veto from Gov. Linda Lingle and now awaits a final vote in the House of Representatives.
Whether the House will vote on the bill, however, has yet been decided as House leaders are expected not to take up the measure unless they have a veto-proof two-thirds majority. If the bill only has the support of a small majority, the House may let the bill simply die.
"It's very close," Democratic Speaker of the House Calvin Say told The Associated Press. "During an election year, this issue is so divisive that it may hurt many of our members."
Last week, around 15,000 Hawaiians rallied outside the state's capitol building, urging legislators not to pass HB 444. Supporters of traditional marriage say the measure undermines the institution of marriage and the will of the Hawaiian people, who in 1998 voted 70 to 30 percent to affirm marriage as being between a man and a woman.
They say gay civil unions are "same-sex marriage by another name."
"While every person, no matter his or her sexual orientation, is worthy of dignity and respect and has certain inalienable rights given by the Creator, there is no right for people of the same sex to call their unions marriage," Catholic Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu expressed in a letter earlier this month urging some 220,000 parishioners to lobby lawmakers.
"'Civil unions' is simply a euphemism for same-sex marriage," he added.
The House had passed HB 444 in February 2009 one short of a two-thirds majority, and the Senate in May 2009 by a 19-6 vote. Because the bill was amended at the last minute to apply to both homosexual and heterosexual couples, however, the final vote was delayed until this year.
Gov. Lingle, a Republican, has not said whether or not she will sign the measure, if passed, but has urged the Legislature to drop the issue.
To date, five states – Colorado, Wisconsin, Maryland, Maine and New Jersey – permit civil unions.
Five states – Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut – have legalized same-sex marriage.