By OSKAR GARCIA
HONOLULU — Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed a bill Wednesday legalizing gay marriage in Hawaii, the state that kicked off a national discussion of the issue more than two decades ago.
Now, the island chain is positioning itself for a boost in tourism as people take advantage of the new law and the state provides another example of the nation’s changing views on marriage.
“Another universe is about to change for all time,” Abercrombie said before signing the bill, comparing the legislation to Title IX, the landmark 1972 legislation that required gender equity in every educational program that receives federal funding.
Speaking before a theater of invited guests at a convention center near the tourist hub of Waikiki, Abercrombie said he believes the law is in line with the spirit of aloha embodied in the state constitution, and with the values of the monarchs who ruled Hawaii well before it became a state.
“Done,” the governor said after quickly signing the measure following his speech.
Hawaii’s gay marriage debate began in 1990 when two women applied for a marriage license, leading to a court battle and a 1993 Hawaii Supreme Court decision that said their rights to equal protection were violated by not letting them marry.
Abercrombie said he planned to give the pen he used to sign the bill to Steve Levinson, the Hawaii Supreme Court justice who wrote the 1993 opinion.
Evan Wolfson, an attorney on the Hawaii case for the three same-sex couples involved, said Wednesday he was overjoyed by the signing.
“I’m so happy that the state where it all started can now join in the celebration and help add to the momentum that’s going to bring the freedom to marry to the entire country,” said Wolfson, who is now the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a group that pushes for state gay marriage laws nationwide.
The Hawaii ruling helped lead Congress to pass the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, part of which was struck down earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The decision led Abercrombie to call the special session that produced Hawaii’s gay marriage law. The bill passed with heavy support in both the state Senate and House, though its journey came with significant public resistance from people opposed to both gay marriage and the process itself.
“People criticize the timing, but it is never the wrong time to do the right thing,” said state Rep. Chris Lee, a Kailua Democrat who pushed the bill in the House.
The law allows gay couples living in Hawaii and tourists to marry in the state starting Dec. 2. Another 14 states and the District of Columbia already allow same-sex marriage. A bill is awaiting the governor’s signature in Illinois.
President Barack Obama praised passage of the Hawaii bill, saying the affirmation of freedom and equality makes the country stronger.
Rep. Bob McDermott, a House lawmaker who filed a lawsuit to derail the special session, promised a new challenge after Abercrombie signed the bill. A judge has said he will take up the case.
An estimate from a University of Hawaii researcher says gay marriage will boost tourism by $217 million over the next three years, as Hawaii becomes a destination for couples in other states, boosting ceremonies, receptions and honeymoons in the islands.
The bump is expected to level out as early trips decrease and possibly more states legalize gay marriage.
“We do know from lots of other states, if they don’t live in a state with marriage equality, they will travel,” said Lee Badgett, an economics professor at University of Massachusetts-Amherst and senior scholar at UCLA’s Williams Institute, a think-tank that conducts law and public policy research on sexual orientation and gender identity issues. “It’s a reasonable expectation people will want to go to Hawaii. It’s a big wedding destination spot.”
But Badgett said Hawaii has competition from other states where gays can marry: “Some of them are making a play for same-sex couples very deliberately. … That’s totally new spending, and that’s great for the economy.”