HONOLULU - The expansion of legally recognized same-sex unions has stalled in the Rainbow State, where gay rights advocates plan lawsuits and supporters of traditional marriage want voters to settle the issue once and for all.
Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed a civil unions bill Tuesday in a blow to the spread of state-sanctioned gay partnerships across the nation, a debate that caught fire in Hawaii in the 1990s and isn't going away anytime soon.
''We're disappointed but not defeated,'' said Tambry Young, a leader in the effort for civil unions who is raising her daughter with her partner. ''There are a lot of families being discriminated against, like my family. We'll do whatever it takes.''
The Republican governor and religious organizations said the people of the state - not their elected leaders or judges - should vote on whether to reserve marriage for couples of a man and a woman.
Hawaii residents already did something similar in 1998, when voters overwhelming approved the nation's first ''defense of marriage'' constitutional amendment.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal say they will file a lawsuit within a few weeks.
It will seek equal rights and obligations for committed same-sex couples, without asking the courts to grant the title of ''marriage'' or ''civil union'' for their relationships.
''Luckily for the people of Hawaii, however, our constitution prevents discrimination based on sexual orientation,'' said Laurie Temple, an attorney for the ACLU of Hawaii. ''If the governor won't honor her oath to uphold the constitution, the courts will.''
The vetoed legislation would have allowed both same-sex and opposite-sex couples to form civil unions, with identical rights that the state provides to married couples.
Hawaii would have become the sixth state to essentially grant the rights of marriage to same-sex couples without authorizing marriage itself. Five other states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage.
Lingle said she is opposed to same-sex marriage and the civil unions bill ''is essentially marriage by another name'' because it has the same ''rights, benefits, responsibilities and protections.''
''In the end, I came to believe that this is something that I shouldn't be deciding for the state by myself,'' she said. ''Everyone in the state should have a chance to vote on it.''
The idea of allowing the people to decide on gay marriage would revisit the divisive 1998 vote, when 69 percent of Hawaii voters approved a constitutional amendment empowering the state Legislature to ban such unions.
''Let the people decide,'' said Francis Oda, who heads the conservative Hawaii Family Forum. ''For the very fundamental issues of our society, it's important for the people to have a say.''
It's already too late for that kind of question to reach the ballot in this year's election, meaning voters couldn't weigh in until 2012 at the soonest. In addition, putting the gay marriage question on the ballot wouldn't necessarily resolve whether the state can have same-sex civil unions.
History may be repeating itself in the Aloha State, where previous court fights and election battles put Hawaii on the front lines of the gay rights movement.
Before voters approved the defense of marriage amendment, Hawaii nearly became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage following a 1993 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling.
The author of that opinion, former Justice Steven Levinson, said Tuesday he fears the ''tyranny of the majority.'' Individual rights and protections are assured by the state and U.S. constitutions, not by voters, he said.
''You don't determine what they are by popular will,'' Levinson said.
Hawaii decision-makers will almost certainly pursue another possibility, outside the courtroom or ballot box. The majority Democratic state Legislature will likely start over by considering a new civil unions measure next year, as they have every session since 2001.
Both sides say they're prepared for the giant rallies, extensive public hearings and contentious votes that inevitably accompany the legislative process. If another civil unions measure passes the Legislature, it could face a different fate because Lingle is term limited and leaves office in December.
Among the Democrats seeking the governor's office in this November's elections, former Rep. Neil Abercrombie supports civil unions while Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann wants voters to decide. The leading Republican candidate, Lt. Gov. James ''Duke'' Aiona, supports a new constitutional amendment reserving marriage between a man and woman.