HONOLULU - Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed same-sex civil unions into law Wednesday, granting gay and lesbian couples the same state rights as married partners.
Civil unions in the Rainbow State would start Jan. 1, 2012, making Hawaii the seventh state to permit civil unions or similar legal recognitions for gay couples. Five other states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage.
The new law comes after 20 years of court fights, protest rallies and passionate public debate in a state that has long been a gay rights battleground.
The Democratic governor's signature makes it the first law he's enacted since he was elected in November. The bill passed the state Legislature last week.
Just seven months ago, former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed a similar bill because she said it was same-sex marriage by another name.
But civil unions have been heading toward passage since Abercrombie defeated two gubernatorial candidates who opposed them, and only one state legislator who supported them lost re-election.
Hawaii, already known as one of the nation's premier locations for destination weddings and honeymoons, could see an influx of gay and lesbian visitors hoping to have their partnerships solemnized on sandy, windswept beaches, according to tourism businesses.
Arguments over civil unions and gay marriage have long divided the state, which nearly became the first in the nation to legalize gay marriage in 1993 because of a state Supreme Court ruling.
But voters overwhelmingly passed the nation's first "defense of marriage" constitutional amendment five years later, which resulted in a law banning gay marriage but leaving the door open for civil unions.
Since then, 29 other states also have enacted defense of marriage amendments.
Opponents of civil unions say the partnerships could lead to same-sex marriage, likely through a court challenge based on the argument that gay couples aren't truly being treated equally unless they're allowed to marry.