By Treena Shapiro
HONOLULU (Reuters) - Hawaii started debating on Monday a proposal that would make the popular wedding and honeymoon destination the 15th U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage, repealing a voter-approved constitutional amendment that banned gay matrimony.
Democratic Governor Neil Abercrombie appeared as the first witness in support of the measure with more than 1,800 people signed up to address the state Senate Judiciary Committee during a special session called by the governor.
The debate this week in Hawaii, which allows civil unions, comes at a time of increasing momentum for gay marriage in the courts, at the ballot box and statehouses across the country.
The governor stressed that 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.
"Our whole focus has been on trying to accommodate the First Amendment here with respect to people's religious rights, and that's been done in good faith," Abercrombie said.
Hearings in the state House of Representatives are scheduled to open on Thursday.
Democrats hold an overwhelming majority over Republicans in both chambers - 24-1 in the Senate and 44-7 in the House - virtually assuring passage of a gay marriage bill.
GAY RIGHTS GAINING MOMENTUM
The special session was originally expected to last five days, but there is already talk of the legislature taking two weeks to complete its work.
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 immediate predecessor, Republican Linda Lingle, vetoed a civil unions bill in 2010.
Just one year ago, only six states and the District of Columbia recognized same-sex marriage. That number has more than doubled since then, due in most cases to litigation over the issue.
Maine, Maryland and Washington state became the first three states to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples by popular vote with passage of ballot initiatives last November.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court forced the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages performed in states where such unions are legal and upheld a lower-court decision throwing out a state ban on gay matrimony in California.
And 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 New Mexico Supreme Court is expected to decide by year's end whether same-sex marriage should be recognized statewide rather than county by county, and the Illinois legislature is also considering the issue.
(Reporting by Treena Shapiro; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Lisa Shumaker)