updated 2/25/2009 4:40:12 PM ET 2009-02-25T21:40:12

A state Senate committee voted 3-3 early Wednesday on a bill that would allow same-sex civil unions, a split that normally would stall the legislation but in this case was not expected to prevent it from advancing.

More than 1,400 people signed up to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which took more than 15 hours of testimony before voting at 3 a.m. It was the largest turnout for a Capitol hearing in years.

Democratic Senate leaders have said that if the panel became deadlocked, they would yank the measure from its committee and force a vote before the full Senate. That is allowed under a rarely used provision of the Hawaii Constitution if more than one-third of senators approve.

At least 18 of the 25 senators have said they favor civil unions. The measure already has passed the Hawaii House, but with one vote less than would be needed to override a veto.

Republican Gov. Linda Lingle has not stated her position on the bill, which would make Hawaii the fifth state to allow same-sex civil unions . Under the state constitution, the earliest the bill can be pulled to the Senate floor is March 10.

Impassioned crowds swamped the Hawaii Capitol on Tuesday, with civil-union opponents wearing red shirts outnumbering gay-rights advocates wearing gold stickers with the word "Equality" written in green. The auditorium was packed and many people ended up watching the testimony from televisions set up in the halls.

Religious groups opposed to civil unions argued that they're the same thing as marriage.

"It is same-sex marriage under a different name," said the Rev. Marc Alexander, vicar general of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu. "The reason why we benefit and endorse and acknowledge marriage in a special way in our religious structures is because of how it serves the common good in our community."

Matter of civil rights
Nearly 70 percent of Hawaii voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1998 granting the state Legislature the power to reserve marriage for couples of one man and one woman. But civil-union proponents told lawmakers that that vote should not trump the civil rights of gays and lesbians.

"Where the fundamental civil rights of an unpopular minority are at stake, the principle of 'letting the people decide' is often a mere cloak for majoritarian tyranny," said Linda Krieger, a University of Hawaii law professor and adviser for a group of students advocating gay rights.

Only Massachusetts and Connecticut allow gay marriage, while Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey and New Hampshire allow civil unions.

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