Gov. Neil Abercrombie today signed the marriage equality bill into law this morning, describing the law as part of Hawaii’s "legacy of aloha."
At a signing ceremony at the Hawai’i Convention Center’s Liliu Theater, the governor told dozens of invited guests and state lawmakers that the marriage equality bill was the "epitome of the First Amendment in action."
Hawaii is the 15th state plus the District of Columbia to allow gay marriage. Illinois is expected to become the 16th state later this month when Gov. Pat Quinn signs a marriage equality bill into law in Chicago.
Gay couples can get married in Hawaii as soon as Dec. 2. Clergy can refuse to perform gay weddings. Churches and other religious organizations can deny goods, services and facilities for gay weddings and receptions if it violates religious beliefs.
Abercrombie said the bill may not be a "perfect vehicle" but it was the product of the deliberative process. He said the debate recognized both equality and religious freedom.
Before Abercrombie signed the bill, an emotional state Sen. Clayton Hee (D, Heeia-Laie-Waialua), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee who steered the bill through the special session of the Legislature, told the crowd, "I could have never imagined playing a role in such a profound yet, in my mind, such a simple thing to do: Bring justice and equality to all of us."
State Rep. Chris Lee (D, Kailua-Waimanalo) mentioned criticism about the timing of the special session, and said, "It is never the wrong time to do the right thing."
Abercrombie had called the special session that began Oct. 28 to address the same-sex marriage issue after the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act and allowed married same-sex couples to receive federal benefits. Abercrombie said a same-sex marriage law would need to be in effect by Dec. 31 for married gay couples to be able to take full advantage of tax benefits now offered by the federal government as a result of that decision.
On Tuesday, the Senate voted, 19-4, to accept the House’s version of the bill, which expanded a religious exemption so churches and other religious organizations would have broader discretion to refuse to host gay weddings and receptions. The House passed the bill 30-19 late Friday night after hearing more than 55 hours of public testimony and holding two all-day hearings.
Abercrombie signed the bill into law today with a koa pen that he plans to give to retired state Supreme Court Justice Steven Levinson, who wrote the 1993 court ruling that held that denying marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples was a violation of equal protection under the state Constitution.
Levinson’s opinion on behalf of a splintered Hawaii Supreme Court cleared the way for the possibility that Hawaii could become the first state in the country to legalize same-sex marriages, a radical idea at the time. It produced a backlash nationally, with Congress in 1996 passing the Defense of Marriage Act that prohibited federal benefits from going to same-sex married couples.
In Hawaii, the state Legislature adopted a measure in 1994 reserving marriage between a man and a woman; voters then passed an amendment in 1998 that states, "The Legislature shall have the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples."
Now, the struggle over marriage equality shifts to Hawaii’s courts. State Rep. Bob McDermott, a Republican who opposes gay marriage, will seek a temporary restraining order to block the state from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, citing the 1998 constitutional amendment.
McDermott (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) and other same-sex marriage opponents contend that the constitutional amendment outweighs any bill passed by the Legislature. Another public vote, they argue, would be necessary to redefine marriage.
Judge Karl Sakamoto has scheduled a hearing for Thursday in Circuit Court.