Hawaiian lawmakers passed a bill giving gay couples the same rights as heterosexual married partners on the US island state thus taking a final step towards legalizing same-sex civil unions.
Gay rights campaigners welcomed the 18-5 vote by the state senate, which has to be signed into law by governor Neil Abercrombie, who supports same-sex civil unions.
Abercrombie has 10 days to approve the bill, which "extends the same rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities of spouses in a marriage to partners in a civil union," according to its text.
"I have always believed that civil unions respect our diversity, protect people's privacy, and reinforce our core values of equality and aloha," said Abercrombie, using the Hawaiian word for love, or peace.
"I appreciate all the time and effort invested by those who shared their thoughts and concerns regarding civil unions in Hawaii. This has been an emotional process for everyone involved," he added.
Equality Hawaii, the state's largest gay rights group, welcomed the senate vote, expected to become law on the tourist-friendly Pacific island state on January 1, 2012.
"We honor and thank the legislature today for their commitment to equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Hawaii," said Alan Spector, co-chair of Equality Hawaii.
Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign, added: "Finally, Hawaii families that are barred from being married will have the same rights and responsibilities... as their colleagues, friends, neighbors."
The two groups have worked closely together since 2008 to build both public and legislative support for civil unions.
Hawaii's legalization of civil unions would make it only the seventh US state where gay marriage is legal, along with Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, as well as the US capital Washington.