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Hawaii poised to allow gay marriage after House passes bill despite public 'filibuster'

Hugh Gentry / Reuters

Kaeo Cozo, who opposes same-sex marriage, chanted, "Let the people vote," as he joined with others in a rally at the Hawaii State Capitol on a gay marriage bill in Honolulu on Friday.

Hawaii, one of the first states where gay and lesbian couples fought for the right to wed, is poised to become the latest state to grant same-sex marriage after lawmakers on Friday approved legislation amid passionate public debate.

The state House of Representatives passed the bill, 30-19. It heads back to the Senate, which approved an earlier version of the legislation and is expected to re-convene on Tuesday.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie has indicated he would swiftly sign the measure into law, making Hawaii the 15th or 16th U.S. state to extend marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples, depending on if he signs the legislation before the governor of Illinois does so with a newly passed same-sex marriage bill there on Nov. 20.

The House vote was seen as the key ballot. In a rare move, the House allowed the public to speak during the debate: More than 1,000 people, most opposed to same-sex marriage, spoke over five days, providing 56 hours of testimony in what some referred to as a public or citizen’s “filibuster.” Nearly 24,000 written testimonies -- evenly split between opponents and supporters -- were also submitted.

“We have a red line that’s dividing the community,” said Rep. Richard Lee Fale, a Republican who urged the Legislature to let the issue go before a popular referendum instead. “Let the people vote.”

“This is about equal rights,” countered Republican Rep. Cynthia Thielen. “Let the Legislature vote.”

Opponents often chanted outside the Hawaii State Capitol during the House deliberations, which began last week. Most were concerned about religious groups not being forced to solemnize or celebrate same-sex marriages.

“It was a very emotional few days,” said Colin Moore, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Hawaii who attended some of the hearings. “This is a very unusual thing here. This kind of very aggressive political activity, these kinds of very, big public protests happen here. But they’re pretty rare.”

Moore said most of the opposition came from evangelicals and the conservative Catholic communities, who are mostly native Hawaiians and Filipinos.

“Unlike other states, you’re seeing a number of Democrats voting against gay marriage in this case,” he said. “And the real issue really is about these religious exemptions.”

Under the House version of the bill, religious groups and affiliated nonprofits would be exempt from having to provide goods, services or facilities for the solemnization or celebration of same-sex marriages. They would be immune from legal liability, too. The exemptions were modeled after similar language in Connecticut’s gay marriage law.

Hawaii’s vote comes days after lawmakers in Illinois voted to approve same-sex marriage. The Aloha state was at the forefront of the gay marriage debate back in the early 1990s, when three same-sex couples sued for the right to wed.

Though the courts sided with the couples, a voter approved amendment to the state constitution in 1998 mandated that only the legislature could decide who gets to marry, thereby nullifying the court case.

The bid by the Hawaii couples to get married also helped lead to passage of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which didn't allow federal recognition of same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court struck down that part of the law barring such recognition in late June, allowing gay couples across the country to receive more than 1,100 federal benefits they'd previously been denied.

One of the original parties to the Hawaii case, Genora Dancel, 53, told NBC News after the vote: "We buried bigotry."

“It’s been 23 years so to me it’s been a long time coming," she said. "I can have a happy ever after. To me, it’s like crossing that finish line.” 

Dancel and the woman she originally filed the lawsuit with split up many years ago. She is engaged to her partner of 15 years, Kathryn Dennis, and said they'll likely marry soon. "I’m going to be my own wedding planner," she quipped.

A University of Hawaii professor has estimated that same-sex marriages could bring in another $217 million to the state over a three-year period starting in 2014.

The National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage, said Saturday in a statement that it was disappointed by the vote.

“The outpouring of support to maintain traditional marriage from the grassroots was extraordinary, but lawmakers ignored the will of the people," said the group's president, Brian Brown. "They will be held accountable.”

Fourteen states plus the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage, while 33 states, excluding Hawaii and Illinois, prohibit it. Many of those state bans also face legal challenges, with nearly 30 lawsuits filed across the country after two Supreme Court decisions in the summer that favored gay marriage rights.

Are you part of a same-sex couple hoping to get married but living in a state where you cannot do so? If so, please email reporter Miranda Leitsinger at miranda.leitsinger@nbcuni.com. Also note if your comments can be used and provide a telephone number.