Hawaii Senate sends marriage bill to governor

The debate went on much longer than expected but the Hawaii Senate voted Tuesday to give final legislative approval to a bill allowing same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses. The bill now goes to Democratic Governor Neil Abercrombie, who has indicated he will sign it tomorrow. It will take effect December 2, making Hawaii the 15th state plus the District of Columbia to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The vote, after almost three hours of speeches, was 19 to 4.

The Illinois legislature passed its marriage equality bill before Hawaii, but its Democratic governor, Pat Quinn, will not sign the bill until November 20 and the law does not go into effect until June 1. That will make Illinois the 16th state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

On the floor of the Hawaii Senate, Senator Clayton Hee, chair of the senate judiciary committee, answered critics who said the marriage equality bill had been rushed through the legislature without giving the public ample time to express its views.

“The discussion of same-sex marriage really began in 1993 with the decision by the [state] Supreme Court in a case brought by a same-sex couple denied a marriage license,” said Hee, who helped champion the legislation. “To say this legislation has been rushed is simply untrue.”

Hee’s Senate Judiciary Committee entertained public testimony from more than 1,000 people and the House panel listened to more than 5,100 citizens who wanted to weigh in on the bill. Each legislator also received thousands of emails, phone calls, and other communications to express their views.

Hee shared two communications he received. One was from a straight Republican woman; the other from Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in last June’s historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Both urged support for the marriage equality bill.

“Some have said this is the wrong time to bring this thing up,” said Hee. “Martin Luther King Jr. said ‘There is no wrong time to seek justice’.”

Senator Mike Gabbard, a Democrat, noted that 60 percent of those who testified at the public hearings were opposed to “this incredibly divisive bill.” The voters of Hawaii did vote on the issue in 1998, ratifying a legislature-approved constitutional amendment to limit marriage to male-female couples.

Senator Russell Ruderman said that, while most of the testimony at the public hearing was opposed to the bill, most of the correspondence received by his office was in support, suggesting the opposition was due mostly to an orchestrated campaign.

Senator Jill Tokuda noted that, throughout history, judges and lawmakers “are asked to exhibit great courage on behalf of the disenfranchised and minority voices,” in regards to such issues as segregation, internment, and interracial marriage.

The debate was not always respectful. One senator, referred to the “LGBTXYZ community.” Another said an opponent told him that Typhoon Haiyan that wreaked devastation on the Phillipines last Friday was caused by Hawaii’s passage of the marriage equality bill. And Sam Slom, the Republican leader in the Senate, could barely contain his disdain for the measure and the Democratic Party. He said today was historic because the date can be written as “11-12-13 and that will never happen again.” He mocked the references of marriage equality supporters to Dr. King’s “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” quote. Slom said it was being bent by man not god and noting that Dr. King never supported same-sex marriage.

“We have never had an outpouring like this,” said Slom. “I don’t know if more hours or more study will change anything, but [the bill] will have lasting and serious consequences.”

The struggle for marriage equality in Hawaii has held a special place in the history of the LGBT civil rights movement. In 1990, three same-sex couples filed a lawsuit in state court in Honolulu, a trial judge concluded the denial of marriage licenses violated the state constitution, and the Hawaii Supreme Court, in 1993, ruled that the state needed to demonstrate it had reason to deny the marriage licenses. After the trial judge determined that the state had failed to do so, the legislature approved an amendment to the state constitution to reserve to the legislature the power to limit marriage to male-female couples, and the voters ratified that amendment in 1998. In the midst of this, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act in anticipation that the marriage equality movement was emerging, and conservative political activists orchestrated ballot measures around the country to ban same-sex marriage in other states.

That tide of opposition to allowing same-sex couples to marry began to turn in earnest in November 2003, which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued the first state high court ruling that a state constitution guaranteed same-sex couples the same rights to marriage licenses as male-female couples. Hawaii now joins 15 other states and the District of Columbia that have ended their bans on allowing same-sex couples to marry. The U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down the key provision of DOMA, which denied federal benefits to same-sex couples with valid marriage licenses.

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