By Treena Shapiro
HONOLULU (Reuters) - Hawaii's state Senate approved legislation on Wednesday to legalize same-sex marriage in a state long popular as a wedding and honeymoon destination, voting overwhelmingly to overturn a ban on gay matrimony.
The 20-4 vote in favor of the bill, with three Democrats joining the state Senate's lone Republican to oppose the measure, came two days after the start of a special session called by Democratic Governor Neil Abercrombie to take up the legislation. One senator was absent for the vote.
If the bill is approved, as expected, by the state House of Representatives - where Democrats outnumber Republicans 44-7 - Hawaii would become the 15th vote to make it legal for gay and lesbian couples to wed.
A House committee is expected to hold a hearing on the measure on Thursday. No floor action in the lower chamber has been scheduled.
Abercrombie has said the proposal was crafted to address opponents' concerns that legalizing gay marriage would infringe on religious freedom. The proposal exempts clergy and churches from having to perform same-sex marriages.
Abercrombie, who served more than two decades in the U.S. House of Representatives before running for governor in 2010, signed a same-sex civil unions bill into law two years ago and has since been a vocal proponent of gay marriage.
His predecessor, Republican Linda Lingle, vetoed a civil unions bill in 2010.
The special session in Hawaii comes at a time of increasing momentum for gay marriage in the courts, at the ballot box and statehouses across the country.
Only six states and the District of Columbia recognized same-sex marriage a year ago, but the number has since more than doubled, due in most cases to litigation over the issue.
Three states - Maine, Maryland and Washington - became the first to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples by popular vote with passage of ballot initiatives last November.
Last week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dropped his legal opposition to gay marriage, making his state the 14th to legalize same-sex weddings.
The debate has long divided the "Aloha State."
In 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled it was discriminatory to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples.
The ruling prompted a conservative backlash. The legislature voted in 1994 to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples, passing a law at odds with the courts. In 1998, Hawaii voters took the courts out of the equation by approving a constitutional amendment giving the legislature power to limit marriage opposite-sex couples.
Gay marriage opponents have opposed further action in the legislature and instead argued that the matter should be left to the voters. Gay marriage supporters counter that questions of basic civil liberties should not be left to popular vote.
(Reporting by Treena Shapiro; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Cooney)
(This story was refiled to show bill would overturn statutory ban, not constitutional amendment that gives lawmakers power over issue, paragraphs 1, 14)