HONOLULU — Hawaii's governor on Tuesday vetoed legislation that would have permitted same-sex civil unions, ending months of speculation on how she would weigh in on the contentious, emotional debate.
Republican Gov. Linda Lingle's action came on the final day she had to either sign or veto the bill, which the Hawaii Legislature approved in late April.
"There has not been a bill I have contemplated more or an issue I have thought more deeply about during my eight years as governor than House Bill 444 and the institution of marriage," Lingle said at a news conference. "I have been open and consistent in my opposition to same-gender marriage, and find that House Bill 444 is essentially marriage by another name."
Had Lingle not vetoed it, the measure would have granted gay and lesbian couples the same rights and benefits that the state provides to married couples. It also would have made Hawaii one of six states that essentially grant the rights of marriage to same-sex couples without authorizing marriage itself. Five other states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage.
Lingle's decision is expected to be the last say on the proposal this year, because state House leaders have said they won't override any of Lingle's vetoes.
She said voters should decide the fate of civil unions, not politicians.
"The subject of this legislation has touched the hearts and minds of our citizens as no other social issue of our day," Lingle said. "It would be a mistake to allow a decision of this magnitude to be made by one individual or a small group of elected officials."
For weeks, Lingle heard emotional statements from both supporters and opponents of the bill. On Tuesday, she invited leaders from both sides to her standing-room only news conference.
Opponents of the measure, including many religious groups, erupted in cheers and hugs when the announcement was made.
"What she did was very just, and I'm very happy about it," said Jay Amina, 50, of Waianae. "It sends a good message throughout the state of Hawaii – that our people here on the islands are standing for traditional marriage."
Supporters then shouted, "We'll keep fighting!" and "Let's go!" The group of about 100 joined in singing "We Shall Overcome."
"We had hoped the governor would do the right thing for civil rights an equality," Lee Yarbrough, of Honolulu, said while standing arm-in-arm with his partner. "This battle is far from over."
Earlier in the day, dozens of supporters had gathered for a daylong vigil in the state Capitol's ground-floor rotunda. Others waved flags and held signs along a busy street, to the honks of passing vehicles.
"I want to be able to get married," said Elizabeth Kline, a 22-year-old University of Hawaii student who quickly corrected herself to say she wants a civil union. "It's not marriage, but it's a step toward it."
A group of about 20 civil unions opponents raised their hands, closed their eyes and said blessings in front of the office doors of key lawmakers. They wore white shirts in a show of unity and buttons declaring "iVote," a promise of consequences come November if civil unions become law.
About 60 percent of the more than 34,000 letters, telephone calls, e-mails and other communications from the public to the governor asked her to veto the measure, the governor's aides said late last week.
Lingle said that "as difficult as the past few weeks have been, I am comfortable with my decision while knowing full well that many will be disappointed by it."
The Aloha State has been a battleground in the gay rights movement since the early 1990s. A 1993 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling nearly made Hawaii the first state to legalize same-sex marriage before voters overwhelmingly approved the nation's first "defense of marriage" constitutional amendment in 1998.
The measure gave the Legislature the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples. Lawmakers responded by enacting a law banning gay marriage in Hawaii but left the door open for civil unions.
Last year, civil unions easily passed the House but stalled in the state Senate. When legislators reconvened in January, it was passed in the Senate but shelved by House leaders until the final day of the legislative session.
Lingle blasted Democrats for reviving the bill and "manipulating the legislative process when it suits them."
"The legislative maneuvering that brought House Bill 444 to an 11th-hour vote on the final day of the session ... after the legislators led the public to believe that the bill was dead, was wrong and unfair," she said.
House spokeswoman Georgette Deemer said House Speaker Calvin Say would have no comment.
Associated Press writers Mark Niesse and Audrey McAvoy contributed to this report.