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Isle leaders reflect on role in fight for equality

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    Supporters of same-sex marriage rights, including Lynn Robinson-Onderko, left, and Brad Lutton, celebrated at the Hawaii state Capitol Friday. “I just really didn’t think this would happen in all 50 states in my lifetime,” said Lutton.

Supporters of Friday’s historic U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriages took pride in noting that the move toward legalization began in Hawaii more than 20 years ago when the state’s highest court issued a landmark ruling.

"Hawaii has truly led the way," said Gov. David Ige in a statement. "Now more Americans than ever support marriage equality and our nation’s highest court has affirmed that it is a fundamental right for all Americans. This is a great day for Hawaii and for our country."

The nation’s first court ruling favoring the legalization of same-sex marriage was issued by the Hawaii Supreme Court in 1993. It was written by then-Justice Steven Levinson, who awoke about 5:30 Friday morning battling a cold, checked his computer and learned of the high court’s decision. He was thrilled, though not surprised, by the news.

"I felt like I woke up early on Christmas morning, and there were a ton of presents," Levinson said.

In a ruling that stirred controversy here and across the country 22 years ago, the Hawaii court’s 2-1-1 splintered decision found that state laws banning same-sex marriage amounted to sex discrimination. The justices ruled that the state must allow gay marriages unless it could show a compelling interest not to do so.

The ruling generated significant political backlash, and in 1998 nearly 70 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment giving state lawmakers the power to reserve marriage for a man and woman. The vote effectively made moot the 1993 court ruling.

But proponents of marriage equality continued to push for a state law, and in 2011 a civil unions bill — just short of legalizing same-sex marriages — sailed through the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie. Two years later, the Legislature passed and Abercrombie signed a bill allowing same-sex marriages.

Those who fought through the years to push for marriage equality were overjoyed when they heard Friday’s news from the nation’s capital.

"I cried for happiness," said Jo Chang, 71, who has a married gay son in California. "My heart stopped."

As Chang joined several dozen others outside the state Capitol building late Friday afternoon to wave rainbow-colored flags at passing rush-hour traffic, she recounted the difficult years her son faced leading up to a joyous phone call from him as news of the court’s decision spread.

"It’s a long ways from the days when he was so sad and worried and even thought of doing harm to himself," the retired state worker said. "And to hear him today so happy, that made me cry. It’s unbelievable."

Bradford Kaiwi Lum, 63, a retired Hawaiian studies teacher and kumu hula, said he fought for gay rights and marriage equality since the late 1990s and was relieved by the court’s ruling.

"I really didn’t think I was going to see this day come true," said Lum amid the celebrating and horn-honking outside the capitol.

The one thing that remains disappointing to Lum: Despite the 1993 court ruling, Hawaii wasn’t the first state in the country to authorize same-sex marriages.

Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who took considerable heat for his strong backing of the 2013 bill that provided that authorization, lauded the fact that same-sex couples who got married here will be able to go anywhere in the country and their marriages will be recognized.

"With the Supreme Court decision today, those lives can become whole and visible throughout the nation," Abercrombie told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "Our common humanity is the winner today."

Before Friday’s ruling, 13 states continued to ban same-sex marriages.

Reflecting the 5-4 split among the justices, opponents of such marriages lamented the decision.

Rep. Bob McDermott (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point), one of the Legislature’s most outspoken critics of gay rights advances, predicted churches that don’t embrace same-sex marriages will become targets of lawsuits seeking to remove their federally approved tax-free status as so-called 501(c)3 organizations.

"This march toward sexual immorality isn’t going to stop," McDermott said.

Former Republican Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, who now is president of Hawaii Family Advocates, said Friday’s decision undermined religious freedom for millions of Americans who through the democratic process have voted to preserve traditional marriage.

"Every American should be free to practice their deeply held beliefs about marriage without fear of being punished by the government," Aiona said in a written statement. "Today’s decision threatens to create more discrimination and inequality than it (is) intended to solve."

For his part, Levinson said the high court’s ruling still seems surreal. He described the majority’s analysis as "absolutely breath-taking" and said it would have been unheard of 10 to 15 years ago.

"This is finally it," Levinson said. "The arguments are over from a legal standpoint … It’s so nice we have closure."

On July 4, the retired justice will be officiating at a same-sex couple’s marriage — the 36th one he has done since the enactment of Hawaii’s law in 2013. He keeps a list of the ceremonies.

"Every marriage I perform of same-sex couples is like another gift under the tree," Levinson said.

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