VIDEO: Hawaii Takes Encouraging Step with Civil Union Law

Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie (D) signed civil union for gay couples into law yesterday, aiming to give them the same state rights as married couples.

"While a welcome step, civil union is no substitute for the full measure of respect, clarity, security, responsibilities, and protection of marriage itself," said Freedom to Marry President Evan Wolfson. "Having today laid a good foundation with civil union, Hawaii should move swiftly to finish the job by ending exclusion from marriage itself, allowing all committed couples to share in the same responsibilities, same respect, and same rules."

Hawaii was nearly the first state to end marriage discrimination back in 1993 because of a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling. Wolfson was co-counsel on that case, Baehr v. Miike. But the court's decision was overturned by an anti-marriage constitutional amendment passed by voters that did allow for civil union. A civil union law was vetoed last year by Governor Linda Lingle (R).

"Civil unions are not marriage, but they at least provide – on a state level – the concrete, tangible, legal rights and responsibilities of marriage," said Alan Spector, Co-Chairman of Equality Hawaii. "We still don't have the social significance and the social meaning of marriage – but getting us to civil unions, psychologically and legally, is such a major barrier to cross."

The state's tourism industry is divided on what kind of effect the new law will have on the number of visitors. A study by UCLA's Williams Institute estimated that the civil union law could pump as much as $40 million into the state's economy over the next four years. Every year, thousands of couples travel to Hawaii to get married on the beach. But it's unclear how many gay couples will go for a civil union ceremony.

"States that have created civil union as a means of both giving and withholding – providing legal protections while withholding the freedom to marry and all its meaning – have found that civil union falls far short of marriage with all its tangible and intangible significance in our lives," said Wolfson. "Many of those states – Connecticut, New Hampshire, and even Vermont, which first created civil union – have since pushed past civil union to marriage, recognizing the inadequacy and unfairness of a separate and unequal status."

You can watch a news report on some of the key differences between marriage and civil union here.