By Treena Shapiro
HONOLULU (Reuters) - Hawaii's governor signed into law on Wednesday a bill extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, capping 20 years of legal and political rancor in a state regarded as a pioneer in advancing the cause of gay matrimony.
The new law, which takes effect on December 2, makes Hawaii the 15th U.S. state to legalize nuptials for gay and lesbian couples, rolling back a 1994 statute defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
"In Hawaii, we are all minorities, and we all deserve the same aloha," state Representative Chris Lee, a leading proponent of the measure, said before Governor Neil Abercrombie signed the bill.
Abercrombie said that despite misgivings by opponents who felt their religious beliefs were infringed, the measure served the "greater good" by more fully embracing gay and lesbian members of society, who had long felt marginalized.
"Now all those who have been invisible will be visible to themselves and the world," the governor said before sitting down at a table inside an auditorium of the Honolulu Convention Center near the city's beachfront Waikiki area to sign the bill, as supporters erupted in cheers.
The measure gained final approval from the Democrat-controlled state legislature on Tuesday, 15 days after the start of a special session called by Abercrombie, a first-term Democrat and former congressman, to consider the bill.
About a week before Hawaii lawmakers approved same-sex marriage, Illinois' General Assembly gave final approval to a gay marriage bill, but Illinois Governor Pat Quinn is not expected to sign that measure until later this month.
The path to legal gay marriage in Hawaii, long a popular wedding and honeymoon destination, has been long and bumpy.
The state Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that barring same-sex marriage was discriminatory, in a landmark opinion that spurred the gay rights movement nationwide but sparked a backlash that until now kept matrimony restricted to heterosexual couples in Hawaii.
In recognizing the legal milestone of that 1993 decision, Abercrombie handed the pen he used to sign Wednesday's bill to former state Supreme Court Justice Steven Levinson, who wrote the opinion in the case known as Baehr vs. Lewin.
The decision was later trumped by enactment of a 1994 statutory ban on gay nuptials, followed by a voter-approved state constitutional amendment reserving for the legislature the power to define the institution of marriage.
The latest reversal by Hawaii lawmakers comes at a time of increasing momentum for gay marriage in the courts, at the ballot box and in statehouses across the United States.
The trend has gained steam since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that married same-sex couples are eligible for federal benefits, striking down a key part of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act.
But the justices stopped short of declaring a nationwide right to same-sex marriage. Proponents and opponents of gay marriage have vowed to continue their battle state by state.
A Hawaii state court judge last week refused a request from opponents for a temporary restraining order to block action on the legislation but said he would examine the constitutionality of the bill once it was enacted.
RELIGIOUS CONSERVATIVES OPPOSED
Allowing gay couples to marry has been vehemently opposed in Hawaii by religious conservatives, as elsewhere in the country.
"You can try to force people to do something they don't believe in, but you can't make it so," said Sam Slom, the lone Republican in Hawaii's state Senate, before that body gave final legislative approval to the bill on Tuesday in a 19-4 vote. Slom joined three Democrats in opposing the measure.
The House of Representatives passed the legislation last Friday, 30-19, with a package of amendments aimed at better addressing religious concerns.
The bill explicitly exempts clergy from having to perform gay weddings if doing so would conflict with their religious beliefs. It also grants immunity from liability to religious organizations and officials for refusing to provide goods and services, or their facilities or grounds, for same-sex weddings and related events.
Massachusetts led the way in legalizing gay marriage by becoming the first state to do so in 2003. A year ago, only six states and the District of Columbia recognized gay marriage, but the number has since more than doubled, due in most cases to litigation over the issue.
Three states - Maine, Maryland and Washington - became the first to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples by popular vote with passage of ballot initiatives last November.
Last month, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dropped his legal opposition to gay marriage, making his state the 14th to legalize same-sex weddings.
(Reporting by Treena Shapiro; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Steve Orlofsky and Lisa Shumaker)