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HONOLULU — Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed same-sex civil unions into law Wednesday, calling it “a triumph for everyone” that gay and lesbian couples will have the same state rights as married partners.
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Civil unions in the Rainbow State would start Jan. 1, 2012, making Hawaii the seventh state to permit civil unions or similar legal recognitions for gay couples. Five other states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage.

“This bill represents equal rights for everyone in Hawaii, everyone who comes here. This is to me the essence of the aloha spirit,” Abercrombie said at a signing ceremony. “With its signing, I want to say ‘welcome’ to the world, come to paradise.”

A crowd of exuberant supporters yelled, cheered and applauded as the Democrat inscribed his signature on the legislation, making it the first law he’s enacted since he was elected in November. The bill passed the state Legislature last week.

“We’re contributing to society, and we deserve the same rights as everyone else. It’s been a long, long time coming,” said Van Law of Honolulu, who wore a rainbow lei and watched the bill’s signing.

The new law follows nearly 20 years of court fights, protest rallies and passionate public debate in a state that has long been a gay rights battleground.

Just seven months ago, former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed a similar bill because she said it was same-sex marriage by another name.

But civil unions have been heading toward passage since Abercrombie defeated two gubernatorial candidates who opposed them, and only one state legislator who supported them lost re-election.

Hawaii, already known as one of the nation’s premier locations for destination weddings and honeymoons, could see an influx of gay and lesbian visitors hoping to have their partnerships solemnized on sandy, windswept beaches, according to tourism businesses.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Tambry Young, who has pushed for civil unions with her partner for more than two years. “All the families here can now feel like it doesn’t matter what kind of family you have.”

Arguments over civil unions and gay marriage have long divided the state, which nearly became the first in the nation to legalize gay marriage in 1993 because of a state Supreme Court ruling.

But voters overwhelmingly passed the nation’s first “defense of marriage” constitutional amendment five years later, which resulted in a law banning gay marriage but leaving the door open for civil unions.

Since then, 29 other states also have enacted defense of marriage amendments.

Opponents of civil unions say the partnerships could lead to same-sex marriage, likely through a court challenge based on the argument that gay couples aren’t truly being treated equally unless they’re allowed to marry.

State Sen. Mike Gabbard, a leader in the movement against same-sex marriage in the 1990s, called the bill’s signing “a sad day for the people of Hawaii.”

“The people of Hawaii made it clear that they’re against civil unions and same-sex marriage, and the politicians have basically said ‘To hell with you,'” said Gabbard, a Democrat.

The signing coincided with Hawaii-born President Barack Obama‘s order Wednesday for his administration to stop defending a federal law banning recognition of gay marriage, and a vote in the Maryland Senate to legalize gay marriage. Illinois legalized civil unions last month.

“It’s a fantastic day,” said Tony Wagner of the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, who attended the signing. “It’s been a good couple of months thus far since the elections. We’re going to keep fighting for equality day in and day out.”

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