By Treena Shapiro
HONOLULU (Reuters) - Hawaii was poised to become the 15th U.S. state to extend marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples on Wednesday, with the governor expected to sign a bill legalizing same-sex matrimony a day after it won a final nod from lawmakers.
The measure, set to take effect on December 2, rolls back a 1994 statute defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman in the state long popular as a wedding and honeymoon destination.
The measure gained final approval from the Democratic-controlled Legislature with a 19-4 vote in the state Senate on Tuesday, just 15 days after the start of a special session called by Governor Neil Abercrombie to consider the bill.
Aides to Abercrombie, a first-term Democrat who served more than two decades in the U.S. Congress before running for governor in 2010, said he was likely to sign the measure into law on Wednesday morning.
Illinois' General Assembly beat Hawaii lawmakers to the punch by a week, giving final approval to a same-sex marriage bill on November 5, but Illinois Governor Pat Quinn is not expected to sign that measure until later this month.
The path to legal gay marriage in Hawaii has been long and bumpy.
The state's Supreme Court ruled 20 years ago that barring same-sex nuptials was discriminatory in a landmark opinion that advanced the cause of gay marriage nationwide but sparked a backlash that has until now kept matrimony limited to heterosexual couples in Hawaii.
President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, hailed passage of the bill in a statement on Tuesday.
"Whenever freedom and equality are affirmed, our country becomes stronger," said Obama, the first U.S. president to support gay marriage. "By giving loving gay and lesbian couples the right to marry if they choose, Hawaii exemplifies the values we hold dear as a nation."
Amended in the state House of Representatives last week to strengthen exemptions for clergy and religious groups, the measure easily cleared the Senate with the body's lone Republican joining three Democrats in opposing it. Two other Democrats were absent.
The House had passed the bill, 30-19, with the support of just one of that chamber's seven Republicans. Thirteen Democrats voted against it.
The move to lift Hawaii's ban on same-sex marriage comes at a time of growing momentum for gay rights in the courts, at the ballot box and in statehouses across the United States.
The trend has gained steam since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that married same-sex couples are eligible for federal benefits, striking down a key part of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act. In a separate ruling the same day, the court paved the way for legalized gay marriage in California.
The justices stopped short in both 5-4 decisions of declaring a nationwide right to same-sex marriage. Proponents and opponents of gay marriage have vowed to continue their battle state by state.
A Hawaii state court judge last week refused a request from opponents for a temporary restraining order to block action on the legislation but said he would examine the constitutionality of the bill once it was enacted.
Allowing gays to marry has been vehemently opposed in Hawaii by religious conservatives, as elsewhere in the country.
Supporters say the Hawaii bill was crafted to address concerns that legalizing same-sex marriage would infringe on religious freedoms. The bill explicitly exempts clergy from having to perform gay weddings if doing so would conflict with their religious beliefs.
In 2003, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to permit gay marriage, and as of a year ago five more states and the District of Columbia had done so. That number has since more than doubled, mostly due to litigation over the issue.
Three states - Maine, Maryland and Washington - became the first to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples by popular vote with passage of ballot initiatives last November.
Last month, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dropped his legal opposition to gay marriage, making his state the 14th to legalize same-sex weddings.
(Reporting by Treena Shapiro; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Ken Wills)