A new law that would allow gay and lesbian couples in Hawaii to form a civil union has the backing of a majority of state House members.

Same-sex partners will have to apply for a licence under legislation proposed by House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, a Democrat.

Members of the clergy and judges, including retired judges, will be eligible to perform civil unions.

32 of the 51 House members who have signed the new bill. An attempt to legalise civil unions failed last year.

Gay and straight couples in Hawaii can already register a reciprocal beneficiary relationship with limited benefits.

“I think for the advocates that support civil unions, clearly, for a lot of them, it’s a compromise,” state Representative Jon Riki Karamatsu, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, told the Honolulu Advertiser.

“In the past, it was all or nothing. And this year, it has changed a lot, and I think that has helped them. I think they are a little bit more aware of the political process now.”

At present gay marriage is legal in Massachusetts and Connecticut, while civil unions that carry all the state rights of marriage are legal in New Jersey, Vermont and New Hampshire.

In 1998 Hawaii voters amended the state constitution to give the legislature the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples, which prevented the courts imposing gay marriage.