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Hawaii legalizes same-sex marriage, joining 14 other states

Supporters of same-sex marriage celebrate after the Hawaii State Senate approved a bill allowing same-sex marriage to be legal in the state of Hawaii on Tuesday. Hugh Gentry / Reuters

Hawaii’s governor on Wednesday signed a bill into law making same-sex marriage legal in one of the first states where gays and lesbians couples sought the right to wed more than 20 years ago.

Weddings can begin Dec. 2 in the Aloha state, which is the 15th to grant same-sex marriage. Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who supported the right of gays and lesbians to wed, had called the legislature into a special session to vote on the issue.

Before he signed the bill, Abercrombie quoted a lesbian friend as telling him: “Today was a moment that my community has fought for, for many, many decades. I have spent my entire life waiting for equality.”

“Now,” Abercrombie said, “all those who have been invisible will be visible to themselves and the world.”

Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage. Hawaii’s House and Senate voted on the issue a week after lawmakers in Illinois approved same-sex marriage, but Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn has said he will sign their bill on Nov. 20.

The Hawaii vote was contentious: The Senate first approved the legislation and then sent it to the House, which was seen as the key ballot.

In a rare move, the House allowed the public to speak during the debate: More than 1,000 people, most of them actually opposed to same-sex marriage, spoke over five days, providing 56 hours of testimony in what some referred to as a public or citizen’s “filibuster.”

Nearly 24,000 written testimonies — evenly split between opponents and supporters — were also submitted.

Most opponents were concerned about religious groups possibly being forced to solemnize or celebrate same-sex marriages. 

House lawmakers tacked on exemptions to the bill allowing religious groups and affiliated nonprofits to be exempt from having to provide goods, services or facilities for the solemnization or celebration of same-sex marriages. They will be immune from legal liability, too. The exemptions were modeled after similar language in Connecticut’s gay-marriage law.

The Senate accepted those changes after the House passed the bill last Friday.

A working paper by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization has estimated that same-sex wedding tourism could bring in another $217 million to the state over a three-year period starting in 2014.

Related: Aloha gay couples! Hawaii eyes same-sex marriage tourism after vote

The National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex rights, said Saturday in a statement that it was disappointed by the vote.

“The outpouring of support to maintain traditional marriage from the grassroots was extraordinary, but lawmakers ignored the will of the people," said the group's president, Brian Brown. "They will be held accountable.” 

The Aloha state was at the forefront of the gay marriage debate back in the early 1990s, when three same-sex couples sued for the right to wed.

Though the courts sided with the couples, a voter approved amendment to the state constitution in 1998 mandated that only the legislature could decide who gets to marry, thereby nullifying the court case.

The bid by the Hawaii couples to get married also helped lead to passage of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which didn't allow federal recognition of same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court struck down that part of the law barring such recognition in late June, allowing gay couples across the country to receive more than 1,100 federal benefits they'd previously been denied.

One of the original parties to the Hawaii case, Ninia Baehr, 53, told NBC News on Tuesday after the Senate vote: "There is really a sweet sense of things coming full circle. I love it."

She and the woman she filed the case with, Genora Dancel, have stayed close after their split in 1997.

"I do have a sense of completion or satisfaction, and yet I know that out of 50 states, we don’t even have half of them," Baehr, deputy director of the ACLU in Montana where she has worked to push through domestic partnerships, said of the 33 states that prohibit same-sex marriage. "There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Are you part of a same-sex couple hoping to get married but living in a state where you cannot do so? Are you part of a same-sex couple not planning to get married? Share your story with reporter Miranda Leitsinger at miranda.leitsinger@nbcuni.com. Also note if your comments can be used and provide a telephone number.

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