HONOLULU — Hawaii lawmakers approved a bill Wednesday to allow civil unions for same-sex couples, marking an end to what the governor called an "emotional process" for a longtime battleground in the gay rights movement.
Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie's office said he intends to sign the bill into law within 10 business days. Civil unions would begin Jan. 1, 2012, making the state the seventh in the nation to grant essentially the same rights of marriage to same-sex couples without authorizing marriage itself.
"I'm overjoyed. I'm so relieved. I'm so happy," said Kristin Bacon of Honolulu, who intends to get a civil union with her partner of 15 years. "We're really representing aloha and the aloha spirit with this vote. I'm thrilled."
Bacon was among a crowd of supporters wearing rainbow-colored lei and stickers saying "Equality" as they cheered, hugged and cried for joy after the Senate's 18-5 vote. The House passed the bill last week.
Gay rights advocates praised the vote as a victory for equal rights in a state known for its diversity and tolerance.
Opponents of the measure, many of them Christians, said civil unions erode the concept of the traditional family and could lead to same-sex marriage.
"I feel very grieved for all of us. Now we'll need God even more in our islands," said Stephanie Kon of Honolulu.
Rather than leave the decision to elected lawmakers, she wanted the state to vote on the issue as it did 13 years ago when voters overwhelmingly passed the nation's first "defense of marriage" constitutional amendment.
The amendment, approved by 69 percent of voters, was a response to a 1993 state Supreme Court decision that nearly legalized gay marriage.
The ruling would have made Hawaii the first state to allow same-sex couples to wed, but it didn't take effect while voters were given a chance to decide.
The "defense of marriage" amendment gave the Legislature the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples, and resulted in a law banning gay marriage in Hawaii but also left the door open for civil unions.
Since then, 29 other states also have enacted defense of marriage amendments.
Five more states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage.
"I have always believed that civil unions respect our diversity, protect people's privacy, and reinforce our core values of equality and aloha," Abercrombie said in a statement released minutes after Wednesday's vote. "For me, this bill represents equal rights for all the people of Hawai'i."
The anxiously awaited civil unions vote came immediately after the Senate confirmed the state's first openly gay Supreme Court justice, Sabrina McKenna.
The Hawaii Legislature also passed a similar civil unions bill last year, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican. She was term-limited from running for election again in November.
The final vote came after years of thousands-strong rallies, election battles and passionate public testimony on an issue that has divided the Rainbow State for nearly 20 years.
"It's been a long time coming. To see it come to fruition is a big day," said David Robins of Honolulu, who also wants full marriage rights for gay couples. "This is the right first step."