HONOLULU - The state Senate passed a bill Wednesday legalizing gay marriage, sending the measure to more uncertain prospects in the House.
After nearly two hours of discussion on the Senate floor on the merits of allowing same-sex couples to marry, the bill passed easily, 20-4, with one senator abstaining. The Hawaii Senate is dominated by Democrats, with only one Republican.
The House referred the bill to a joint committee later in the day, but not before a nearly four-hour session that was riddled with arguments, recesses, private caucus meetings and maneuvering by lawmakers on both sides of the issue to either move the measure along, delay it or advance a rival bill to put the matter to a public vote through a constitutional amendment.
Lawmakers convene on the Senate floor of the state Capitol in Honolulu on Wednesday.
Democratic Sen. Clayton Hee said before voting for the bill in the Senate that the moment is career-defining to House and lawmakers should embrace it.
"I ask you to expand the meaning of the word 'aloha' to truly include everyone," regardless of race, creed or sexual orientation, Hee said.
The joint House committee's hearing today is likely to be jammed with public testimony, with the possibility of being extended to a second day.
House Majority Leader Scott Saiki has said it's likely that the chamber will amend the bill to change religious exemptions. The Senate bill exempts ministers and other clergy - but not-for-profit businesses - from having to perform gay wedding ceremonies.
"The House committees recognize that there is still a lot of public concern about the scope of the exemptions," Saiki said.
Hee said after the Senate vote that he had spoken with leadership in the House and told them that senators may not support expanded religious exemptions if they allow gay couples to be discriminated against as a separate class of people from others.
"Those are efforts that I would caution against," Hee told reporters after the Senate vote.
Two lawmakers, Sens. Sam Slom and Mike Gabbard, spoke in opposition to the bill and criticized everything from the special session itself to the consequence they say gay marriage will have on society.
Slom, the Senate's only Republican, said the special session amounted to political theater, with the outcome decided ahead of time.
"The votes were extracted or taken before we ever met - otherwise we wouldn't have met," he said.
Gabbard said the issue should have been heard during regular session, with more of an effort to include testimony from Kauai, Maui, the Big Island and other Neighbor Islands.
He said the discussion on gay marriage has included name-calling and death threats.
"So much for the aloha spirit," he said.
The Halloween joint hearing between the House judiciary and finance committees is expected to last until midnight, then carry over to Friday if there still are people wanting to testify.
Because of the high public interest, the committees waived a 24-hour deadline on submitting testimony, promising to accept testimony before and during the hearing. A Senate committee hearing on Monday packed a rotating crowd through a 200-seat basement auditorium.
If the bill passes as currently written, ceremonies for same-sex couples would begin Nov. 18.