The state House of Representatives decided to indefinitely postpone a decision on whether to grant gay and lesbian couples the same rights and benefits the state provides to married couples.
The state Senate had approved a civil unions bill last week. But House leadership wavered on pushing the controversial issue. Last year, 33 of 51 House members voted in favor of civil unions.
Civil union supporters in the crowded House gallery on Friday shouted, "Shame on you!" while opponents cheered.
"It's an election year, and they're more concerned about keeping their seats than doing what's right," said Stephen Nagle of Kaaawa, wearing a rainbow lei in support of civil unions.
Civil union opponent Rebecca Botello of Kaneohe, wearing a red "iVote" sticker, backed the lawmakers' move, saying, "I don't believe it's the right of the House or Senate to redefine what marriage is."
No roll call was taken on the decision to postpone the vote, which shielded representatives from having their position on the record. Instead, lawmakers shouted "aye" or "no," and Vice Speaker of the House Michael Magaoay then ruled that the motion to delay a vote had passed.
The voice vote defers further action on the bill unless two-thirds of lawmakers vote to reconsider it; otherwise, Hawaii's debate on the issue is over for this year.
Republican Gov. Linda Lingle had refused to say whether she would veto a civil unions bill if lawmakers had approved it.
Had a civil-unions bill been enacted, Hawaii would have joined California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington, all of which grant essentially all the rights of marriage to same-sex couples without authorizing marriage itself. Five other states permit same-sex marriage: Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut.