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State House panels start hearing from public on gay marriage

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    House lawmakers this morning started hearing testimony on the same-sex marriage bill approved by the Senate.

After more than three hours of testimony from public officials, the state House Judiciary and Finance committees around 1:25 p.m. Thursday began to hear from the more than 4,000 members of the public who have signed up to testify.

Lawmakers spent more than 2 hours grilling state Attorney General David M. Louie about the bill — including its religious exemption, how it could affect divorce services in the state, and whether it would affect what is taught to students in schools.

What could turn into days of testimony on a same-sex marriage bill kicked off at 10 a.m.

At one point, House Finance Chairwoman Rep. Sylvia Luke (D, Punchbowl-Pauoa-Nuuanu) urged representatives and testifiers to be succinct with asking and answering questions. 

“We haven’t even gotten to the public and we’re here to listen to the public,” she said after the hearing moved into its third hour.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz’s wife, Linda, spoke before lawmakers in favor of same-sex marriage. “We decided as a family that we should be here today speaking on behalf of this measure,” she said, noting that nearly 8,000 people have signed Schatz’s petition in favor of marriage equality.

State Rep. Karl Rhoads chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in his opening remarks this morning that everyone who signs up to testify before midnight will be allowed to testify, and that he and Luke will decide at midnight whether to keep going or resume testimony Friday morning.

“No one who does not sign up by midnight will be allowed to testify,” Rhoads (D, Chinatown-Iwilei-Kalihi) said. “Be sure to sign up by midnight.”

Rhoads paused Louie’s testimony shortly after noon to allow a testifier who required Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations to take the stand out of order with her partner of 20 years. The women were the first non-official testifiers to speak in support of the bill.

Louie resumed answering lawmakers’ questions around 12:15 p.m., concluding about 15 minutes later. He was only the second person to testify, following a representative from the governor’s office. The departments of Health and Taxation and the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission stepped up in favor of the bill after Louie. 

Director of Health Loretta Fuddy said the department, which manages vital records such as marriage licenses, is prepared if the governor signs a same-sex marriage bill and will not need any additional funds to comply with the proposed law.

Some of the first few testifiers from the public who spoke in favor of gay marriage asked legislators what their definition of religious freedom is. They did so noting that the religion they practice does not prohibit them from marrying members of the same sex, but they cannot marry under the law. The bill would expand religious freedom to all people, they said. 

Testifiers against gay marriage reiterated a request voiced by many before them to let the people of Hawaii decide whether gay marriage should be legal by putting the issue to vote.

The state Senate sent the bill to the House after approving it in a 20-4 vote Wednesday. The vote came after hearing more than 12 hours of testimony on Monday.

Sen. Clayton Hee (D, Heeia-Laie-Waialua), chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee, in his speech on Wednesday placed marriage equality into the same historical context as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia, which determined that state bans on interracial marriage violated equal protection and due process.

The Senate version of the bill would allow same-sex couples to marry starting Nov. 18 and would recognize that clergy and others have a constitutional right to refuse to perform gay weddings. Churches and other religious organizations would have a narrow exemption from the state’s public accommodations law, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, as long as churches do not make religious facilities or grounds available to the general public for weddings for a profit.

The Hawaii Civil Rights Commission and others have urged lawmakers not to undercut the public accommodations law, but the House is expected to expand the exemption to appeal to members with strong concerns about the bill.

Meanwhile, a Republican lawmaker who has expressed frustration with the process is hoping to disrupt it with a lawsuit.

State Rep. Bob McDermott said today that he filed the lawsuit Wednesday to try to get a judge to shut the special session down.

McDermott told House members that the lawsuit became appropriate when the Senate passed its gay marriage bill on Wednesday.

He is one of 30 House lawmakers on two committees holding a joint hearing, where thousands of people are expected to testify in two-minute stretches. The hearing is expected to last until midnight, then resume Friday if not everyone has time to testify.


Click here to watch live streaming video of today’s testimony before the House.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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