Gay Rights Supporters Cheer Victories

On the same day that the Obama Justice Department announced it would no longer defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act — which prohibits federal recognition of gay unions — Hawaii and Maryland became the latest states to expand rights for same-sex couples.

Signing his first bill as chief executive, Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie approved a bill to allow civil unions, setting off emotional celebrations among gay couples across the island. The legislation gives same-sex pairs many of the same legal rights and protections as married heterosexual couples, and goes into effect next year.

In Maryland, the state Senate voted 25 to 22 to allow same-sex marriages, "all but ensuring passage of the measure in that chamber," as The Washington Post reports . The Senate had been a hurdle for gay marriage legislation, but its vote Wednesday (February 23) — along with the support of Governor Martin O'Malley and an apparent majority of the House of Delegates — means that Maryland is likely to become the sixth state (plus the District of Columbia) to approve same-sex weddings. The others are Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

The action in Hawaii and Maryland on Wednesday was overshadowed by the Obama administration's announcement on the Defense of Marriage Act, which, since its approval in 1996, has defined marriage as a union between a man and woman and denies federal marriage benefits to same-sex partners. As recently as last month, Justice Department lawyers were defending the statute, which is under attack in several federal court cases.

Gay rights supporters have celebrated several key victories in recent months, led by the congressional repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which prevented openly gay people from serving in the military.

But the subject of gay rights remains volatile politically in many states, including Iowa, where Governor Terry Branstad on Wednesday appointed three new members to the state Supreme Court after voters last year ousted a trio of justices who helped legalize same-sex marriage in the state. 

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