The state Senate on Tuesday will agree to the state House’s version of a same-sex marriage bill and send it to Gov. Neil Abercrombie for his signature.
Sen. Clayton Hee (D, Heeia-Laie-Waialua), chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee, said Saturday that he would recommend that the Senate accept the House’s changes to the bill, which expanded a religious exemption to protect religious freedom.
Abercrombie is expected to sign the bill into law shortly after he receives it from the Senate. If Abercrombie signs the bill before Nov. 20, Hawaii would be the 15th state plus the District of Columbia to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.
Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois has announced that he would sign a same-sex marriage bill into law at a ceremony in Chicago on Nov. 20.
"There are very few opportunities to participate in government in decisions that define your career, and this is one of those decisions that will define the careers of all of the members in the Legislature," Hee told reporters at a news conference at the state Capitol with Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria (D, Kakaako-McCully-Waikiki). "Although Hawaii was not the first to enact same-sex marriage, what shouldn’t be lost is Hawaii was the first — in the Baehr v. Lewin lawsuit — that started the same-sex marriage discussion nationally."
The state Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that denying same-sex couples marriage licenses was a violation of equal protection under the state Constitution. The court’s ruling influenced Congress to approve the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which restricted marriage to heterosexual couples, and prompted Hawaii voters in 1998 to approve a constitutional amendment that gave the state Legislature the power to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the federal Defense of Marriage Act was an unconstitutional violation of due process and equal protection, allowing same-sex couples who are legally married to receive federal benefits. The court left it up to the states to decide whether to legalize gay marriage.
Abercrombie responded to the court’s ruling by calling the Legislature into special session.
The House approved the bill late Friday in a 30-19 vote after overcoming procedural maneuvers to delay action. Hee predicted that the Senate vote on Tuesday would be 21-4 if all senators are available to vote.
Galuteria announced that security procedures for the Senate floor session on Tuesday would be similar to Friday’s House session, when advocates for and opponents of gay marriage were separated outside the state Capitol.
Under the bill, gay couples could get married in Hawaii as soon as Dec. 2. Clergy would have the right to refuse to perform gay weddings. Churches and other religious organizations would be able to decline to provide goods, services and facilities for gay weddings and celebrations if it violates religious beliefs.
Rep. Bob McDermott (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point), who opposes gay marriage, sent Abercrombie a letter on Friday stating that he would seek a temporary restraining order in Circuit Court to prevent the state from issuing marriage licences to gay couples.
McDermott contends that the 1998 constitutional amendment that gave the Legislature the power to define marriage as between heterosexual couples trumps any statutory change to the law. He insists that another vote by the people is necessary to redefine marriage.
Judge Karl Sakamoto has said he would hear McDermott’s challenge after the bill becomes law.
"That’s the last hope we have," McDermott said. "That’s it."
Rep. Marcus Oshiro (D, Wahiawa-Whitmore-Poamoho) and other House lawmakers had exhorted the Senate to take more time to review the House version. Late Friday, in a speech on the House floor, Oshiro said that if the bill was not improved he would leave the special session with a taste like someone had stuffed something "vile" down his throat.
"There is no need to rush," Oshiro said.
Some in both the House and Senate said privately that technical changes to the bill suggested by Rep. Sharon Har (D, Kapolei-Makakilo) as "friendly amendments" had some merit. But Oshiro and Har, who both voted against the bill, had put House leadership on the defensive with relentless attacks against the bill and the process, moves that were interpreted as strategic attempts to delay action.
If the Senate were to reject the House’s version, the House and Senate would have had to go into a conference committee, which would have prolonged the debate and would have likely jeopardized the chances a bill would pass.
Hee defended the process and the special session. The Senate held an 11-hour hearing on the bill, while the House hearing took a record 56 hours of public testimony over five days.
"Anybody who has been around this building during the legislative session understands that this bill would not get near the kind of focus or attention but for the special session," Hee said.
Both Hee and Rep. Karl Rhoads (D, Chinatown-Iwilei-Kalihi), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, personally preferred a narrower religious exemption but agreed to an expansion in an effort to get the legislation passed. The House also chose to remove a section of the bill on parentage rights after hearing concerns from Native Hawaiians about how ancestry would be recorded for the children of same-sex couples.
"I would frame it more as a reaction to what we heard in our hearings," Rhoads said of the changes.
House lawmakers had expected that a leadership divide that still smoldered after House Speaker Joseph Souki (D, Waihee-Waiehu-Wailuku) took over in January with a coalition of progressive Democrats and minority Republicans would be exposed during the special session.
McDermott and other Republicans who oppose gay marriage sought to dissolve the coalition after failing to persuade Souki to replace Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R, Kailua-Kaneohe) on the House Judiciary Committee. Thielen was the only Republican to vote for the bill.
While many in the Legislature anticipated that McDermott and other conservatives would lead the charge against gay marriage, few expected that Oshiro, who lost power when the new coalition took control, would be the agent of obstruction.
Oshiro insisted that he was motivated by improving the bill and ensuring a fair process, not undermining House leadership.
But many House lawmakers were privately baffled by Oshiro’s tactics given his history on equal rights.
In April 2010, on the last day of the session, then-House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro proposed suspending the House rules and reviving a civil-unions bill that had been indefinitely postponed. The bill was technically flawed — it said it would take effect in January 2010 and had other defects — but lawmakers wanted to pass the bill anyway in the interest of advancing equality.
Marcus Oshiro pointed out at the time that the bill was "inartfully drafted" but he did not stand in the way of Blake Oshiro’s extraordinary maneuver.
In February 2011, Oshiro voted again to pass a civil-unions bill that was technically flawed and would have to be corrected by lawmakers a year later. He inserted written remarks into the House journal outlining the potential problems with the bill’s language.
"But, as imperfect this measure may be, I will not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good," Oshiro wrote.