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Aloha, marriage equality

The Hawaii Senate voted 19-4 in favor of allowing same-sex couples to marry.
Jon Raffesberger and his partner German Sanchez celebrate after the Hawaii State Legislature voted on allowing same sex marriage in Honolulu, HI, November 8, 2013.
Jon Raffesberger and his partner German Sanchez celebrate after the Hawaii State Legislature voted on allowing same sex marriage in Honolulu, HI, November 8, 2013.

Rainbow flags and leis colored an already bright Hawaiian landscape on Tuesday, as the Aloha State followed Illinois, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and Delaware in voting to legalize marriage equality this year.

Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1 by 19-4 (with two excused), sending a wave of applause across the packed gallery, while outside, the celebration (fully equipped with a DJ) raged on. The measure now heads to the desk of Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who will sign as early as Wednesday.

“Today, we celebrate our diversity defining us rather than dividing us,” said the governor in a statement. “I look forward to signing this significant piece of legislation, which provides marriage equity and fully recognizes and protects religious freedoms.”

President Obama also offered congratulations to his home state:

“By giving loving gay and lesbian couples the right to marry if they choose, Hawaii exemplifies the values we hold dear as a nation. I’ve always been proud to have been born in Hawaii, and today’s vote makes me even prouder.”

Tuesday’s final passage followed a protracted debate in the state House of Representatives that included 56 hours of public testimony, broken down into two-minute pitches. Late Friday night, lawmakers voted 30-19 to approve the legislation, sending the bill with changes to its religious exemption and effective date back to the Senate. Once it’s signed, gay couples can begin marrying in Hawaii on Dec. 2.

Along with Illinois, which voted last week to legalize marriage equality, Hawaii will join 14 states and the District of Columbia in allowing any two people to marry regardless of sexual orientation. It’s the 7th state this year to allow marriage equality, either through the courts or legislation.

While it may not have been first to legalize marriage equality, Hawaii was arguably where the movement began over 20 years ago, when three same-sex couples attempted to file for marriage licenses at the state Health Department in 1990. Once denied, the couples filed suit arguing that Hawaii was violating its constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

“We actually thought there was a chance we might get a license,” said Ninia Baehr, the named plaintiff in the landmark case Baehr v. Miike, originally Baehr v. Lewin, to msnbc. “We were disappointed we were turned down.”

Hawaii’s Supreme Court sided with Baehr and five other plaintiffs, but the victory was short-lived. Soon after, voters enacted a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples in Hawaii. The lawsuit also spurred lawmakers in Washington to pass the now-defunct Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages anywhere in the country.

“I feel like we won in court, but the public wasn’t quite ready yet,” said Baehr, who now lives in Montana with a different long-term partner. “But now they’re ready; now it’s happening.”

At the time of her interview with msnbc following Tuesday’s vote, Baehr hadn’t yet heard the news. Her reaction was one of bittersweet relief mixed with pure joy.

“I can’t believe I didn’t see it!” she said. “That’s incredible. I’m just as thrilled as I could possibly be.”

Baehr’s former attorney, Evan Wolfson, now the founder and president of the group, Freedom to Marry, also lauded the end of Hawaii’s long struggle for same-sex marriage.

“I was co-counsel on that landmark case, and now, after two decades of work, it’s especially sweet to write to you with the news that at last we’ve won the freedom to marry in the state where it all started,” said Wolfson in a statement. “Coming right after thrilling wins in Illinois and New Jersey, our Hawaii triumph really underscores how far we’ve come.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down the portion of DOMA that defined marriage as between one man and one woman, tearing down longtime barriers for gay couples in numerous government agencies, from the State and Defense Departments to the Treasury and the IRS. That ruling also opened the floodgates for a surge of litigation in federal and state court, challenging bans against same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia, and–as of Friday–Idaho, to name a few.

Pointing to the DOMA ruling, Gov. Abercrombie called for a special session to begin on Oct. 28 so lawmakers could consider marriage equality legislation. Opponents on the Senate floor Tuesday argued the measure was rushed. Supporters countered that it was a conclusion 20 years in the making.

Republican state Rep. Bob McDermott has promised to request a temporary restraining order to block the bill from taking effect. He filed a lawsuit, which a state judge has agreed to hear, claiming that the legislature does not have the constitutional authority to change the state’s definition of marriage. McDermott has also criticized the bill for having too narrow a religious exemption and for being potentially harmful to children, among other objections, which he said has unleashed a flood of hatred against him.

“It doesn’t matter what I say, I will be called a hater, bigot, homophobe and ignorant,” said McDermott to msnbc.

“I do not believe [homosexuality] is an immutable characteristic, like skin color,” he said. “It is a behavior that one chooses.”

It’s likely that on Dec 2nd, same-sex couples in Hawaii will be able to choose to wed.