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Bill moves ahead

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    Gov. Neil Abercrombie attends and testifies during the Senate Judiciary hearing on the Marriage Equality bill.
    Supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage shared their messages with drivers on Beretania Street in front of the state Capitol on Monday as the Legislature began its special session to decide the issue.
PHOTO GALLERY: Rally at the Capitol


The state Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee voted late Monday to advance a gay marriage bill after a daylong public hearing that explored themes of equality and religious liberty, first-class citizenship and the word of God.

The 5-2 vote came after the debate about same-sex marriage engulfed the state Capitol during the first day of a special legislative session called by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

"It’s historic in the sense that there’s a huge paradigm shift, but it’s a shift that, in my opinion, bends the arc of justice towards the right way," Sen. Clayton Hee (D, Heeia-Laie-Waialua), the committee’s chairman, said after the vote. "It takes us to a new level of equal rights."

The bill now goes to the full Senate, where it is likely to be approved and sent to the state House.

State Attorney General David Louie had told the committee earlier Monday that this was one of the "moments in our lives, in the lives of nations and states, when history is made and things change for the better." But Louie and other administration officials were quickly caught off guard by questions from Hee and other senators about whether gay couples in Hawaii can take advantage of federal tax benefits simply by getting married in California or other states where gay marriage is legal and then returning to the islands.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that legally married gay couples are entitled to federal benefits. Gay couples in civil unions in Hawaii are not eligible for federal benefits unless they can legally marry, a primary justification Abercrombie used for convening the special session.

Louie acknowledged that gay couples in Hawaii can qualify for federal tax benefits by marrying in other states, but would not receive other federal benefits they would be eligible for if Hawaii were to legalize gay marriage.

Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom (R, Diamond Head-Kahala-Hawaii Kai), who opposes gay marriage, said that if Louie’s answer is correct, the Senate "should adjourn the meeting and adjourn the session."

"Amen!" several people in the audience at the Capitol auditorium sang out.

But Louie, who promised senators he would prepare a more detailed analysis of federal benefit eligibility, said forcing gay couples in Hawaii to travel to other states to marry would pose a significant burden to achieving equality.

The hearing provided the first chance for the public to speak on the record about an issue that tests moral, legal and equity boundaries.

Many religious leaders characterized the bill as a potential threat to religious liberty, but few offered specific objections to the draft or suggestions for amendments.

The Rev. Gary Secor, the vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Honolulu, said marriage between a man and a woman is a "fact of nature, not a social prejudice."

He added, "The church is also concerned that its religious freedom and conscience rights, both individually and collectively, continue to be protected. We fail to see how this bill takes these concerns adequately into account."

Other religious leaders urged senators to take action.

Bishop Eric Matsumoto of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, the largest Buddhist congregation in the state, said the mission holds to the principle of equality for all people.

"We believe that marriage equality is a basic civil right of any person," he said. "Further, in any relationship, what is most important are the commitment, respect and trust that people bring to the relationship.

"The choice to marry the person that you love is a freedom that should not be denied to anyone."

The Senate’s version of the bill would provide churches with a narrow exemption from the state’s public accommodations law, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, if churches do not make their religious facilities available to the general public for weddings for a profit.

William Hoshijo, executive director of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, said the commission strongly supports marriage equality but opposes the exemption to the public accommodations law. He said the commission favors a religious exemption for religious facilities provided that the facilities are not public accommodations.

"Enactment of marriage equality legislation should not be a vehicle or excuse to weaken or diminish existing civil rights protections," he said.

Hee told Francis Oda, pastor of New Life Church Honolulu, who said the bill could endanger religious freedom, that his guidance to the bill’s drafters was to be "explicity clear that the First Amendment freedoms, as it relates to religion, would not change one iota. That if this bill became law, the freedoms enjoyed by churches today would not change tomorrow."

Oda asked senators to delay a decision on the bill until the regular legislative session that begins in January. He said the Senate version is better than previous drafts but that pastors still anticipate legal challenges by gay rights activists who will test the limits.

"You can say that, well, then the courts will make that decision," he said. "But that is a costly process for any church to endure. And it takes time, it takes focus.

"So why open the Pandora’s box? Why not spend more time, make sure that people are comfortable on all sides, and decide as you will?"

Hee challenged Ron Arnold, pastor of Kaimuki Christian Church, to reconcile Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized interracial marriage, with the views many Christians have today against same-sex marriage. Hee said the court’s ruling had redefined marriage, ending discrimination based on race.

But Arnold said the court in the Loving case understood marriage as between a man and a woman.

"When they made that decision, they were saying that there is equality — interracially — for a man and a woman to marry, as has been historically the case," he said. "They had no reference to same-sex unions, and that’s why they are apples and oranges."

The state House, meanwhile, set a hearing date for the bill for 10 a.m. Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee and the House Finance Committee, presuming that the Senate will approve the bill and send it to the House by then.

House Republicans called for a hearing on a bill that would ask voters through a constitutional amendment whether marriage should be reserved for heterosexual couples. House leaders have said they do not plan hearings on such proposals during the special session, citing opposition to the idea in the Senate.

"If we don’t include the people in the huddle we are going to be regretful," said Rep. Gene Ward (R, Kalama Valley-Queen’s Gate-Hawaii Kai).

Rep. Marcus Oshiro (D, Wahiawa-Whitmore-Poamoho) and several other House Democrats who lost an internal leadership struggle earlier this year, and who have been trying to slow the push toward same-sex marriage, unsuccessfully sought to have individual committee hearings on bills proposed during the special session, rather than joint hearings. If their move had succeeded, it could have had the effect of extending the special session.

Although critics — and some lawmakers — have complained that an issue with such potentially far-reaching social consequences should not be considered in a special session, lawmakers have likely heard from more people on the issue during the past few months than on any other single issue since civil unions were approved two years ago.

More than 1,800 signed up to testify before the Senate committee on Monday. In orderly one- to two-minute bursts — timed by the ring of a bell from a committee clerk — people were given an opportunity to add their voices to the debate.

Lisa Inouye, who works in payroll and lives in Kakaako, said she tends to shy away from politically charged issues but felt compelled to testify. She said senators, whether they realize it or not, are not only governmental and political leaders but spiritual leaders as well.

"I trust you," she said. "I trust that you, as my elected leaders, are upholding and adhering to righteousness in this land. I trust you that you yourselves are soul searching, sensing the gravity of this decision, tossing and turning at night, seeking not after your own personal or group agendas, but really looking after what will be the best for all the people of Hawaii here and for future generations to come.

"Not some, but all of the people, even the silent ones like me who are coming out to voice their opinion. So I beseech you, please let the residents, the registered voters of Hawaii, have a say."

Gary Okabayashi, a retired flight attendant who lives in Waikiki, said he and his husband, Lenny Zimmerman, have been together for 35 years. They flew to California in October to marry because they thought it was important to wed before the end of the year for federal tax purposes.

But Okabayashi told senators he does not believe couples should have to travel to other states to get married. He said marriage for same-sex couples is a matter of equality, fairness and aloha.

"No one should have to fly to another state to get married to get federal benefits," he said. "Residents should be able to get married before family and friends here in Hawaii."

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