HONOLULU - Hawaii started debating on Monday a proposal that would make the popular wedding and honeymoon destination the 15th US state to legalize same-sex marriage, repealing a voter-approved constitutional amendment that banned gay matrimony.
Democratic Governor Neil Abercrombie appeared as the first witness in support of the measure with more than 1,800 people signed up to address the state Senate Judiciary Committee during a special session called by the governor.
The debate this week in Hawaii, which allows civil unions, comes at a time of increasing momentum for gay marriage in the courts, at the ballot box and statehouses across the country.
The governor stressed that the proposal was crafted to address opponents' concerns that legalizing gay marriage would infringe on religious freedom. The proposal exempts clergy and churches from having to perform same-sex marriages.
"Our whole focus has been on trying to accommodate the First Amendment here with respect to people's religious rights, and that's been done in good faith," Abercrombie said.
Hearings in the state House of Representatives are scheduled to open on Thursday.
Democrats hold an overwhelming majority over Republicans in both chambers - 24-1 in the Senate and 44-7 in the House - virtually assuring passage of a gay marriage bill.