Hawaii set to pass same-sex marriage legislation

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The state of Hawai’i is set to become the 16th in the nation to pass legislation granting same-sex couples the right to marry; while some rejoice at the chance to legalize their relationships, others plan ways to challenge its passage.

After a record 57-hour hearing on the issue, the Hawai’i House Of Representatives passed the same-sex marriage bill with three amendments: one added in order to protect the rights of religious institutions from penalties should they refuse to participate or support the unions, one striking down language that would facilitate children of same-sex couples registering as Native Hawai’ians, and a third moving the date that the bill will become effective to December 2.

Although the Senate passed an earlier version of the bill, the amended bill must go through a final read on the Senate floor due to the added amendments; another vote is set to take place Tuesday, November 12.

There is no foreseeable challenge to that vote, and the bill is expected to pass the Senate and make its way to Governor Neil Abercrombie’s desk, where it could be signed into law before the end of the week.

For many, the bill’s passage feels like a coming back full circle—it was the Hawaii’ian Supreme Court’s landmark decision in 1993, where the state’s refusal to allow a lesbian couple to marry was deemed discrimination based on gender, that sparked a nationwide debate around same-sex marriage, culminating in this week’s legalization of same-sex marriages in Hawai’i, twenty years later.

Steven H. Levinson, the State Supreme Court justice who wrote the 1993 opinion in Baehr v. Lewin, the case which started that same-sex marriage debate, reflected on his statement back in 1993.

“I was naïve about how the Baehr decision would be received,” he told the New York Times, in between meetings at the State Capitol where he has been helping the campaign in the fight for same-sex marriage.

The Baehr decision sparked a backlash against same-sex marriage, and inspired the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

Now the debate comes full circle, with no foreseeable opposition in the Senate to the bill’s passage, the advent of same-sex marriage in Hawaii is already being celebrated amongst the LGBT community in the state, and many are already planning their weddings, to take take place after the bill becomes effective, December 2.

“We hope to be the first but it’s okay if we’re not. We’re just excited,” said Renea Stewart of Hawaii Kai to Hawaii News Now.

Stewart and her partner, Lisa Veneri, plan to get married at midnight on December 2, with former Justice Steven Levinson set to preside over the ceremony.

“We’re paving the way and hopefully creating an environment for the youth to feel comfortable and feel they have a place,” she continued.

Others, however, are anticipating their steps after the bill’s passage to take a much different route. Republican Representative Robert McDermott has already filed a suit challenging the constitutionality of the bill, which was thrown out of court because the restraining order sought by the suit was considered premature.

McDermott’s argument rests on a constitutional amendment, adopted in 1998, that gave the State Legislature the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples.

“I was there in 1998 as a member of the State House…a claim few in office today can make. The people thought they were answering the question once and for all,” he told the Hawaii Reporter.

Although the amendment granted the State Legislature the right to ban marriage, it does not compel the governing body to do so. McDermott, however, feels that the intention behind the amendment is what counts.

“The point here is that the people thought they were voting on reserving marriage to opposite-sex couples only,” Mcdermott continued.

The same-sex marriage bill will go through a final read and vote on the Hawai’ian Senate floor Tuesday, November 12. If all goes well, gay and lesbian couples will be able to exercise their right to wed as early as December 2.

Stewart, anticipating her wedding in December, spoke about the way that equal rights for gays and lesbians allows LGBT people to feel included in the Hawai’ian community.

“What this does for us—to actually be legally married—it just really gives us a place in the community and doesn’t make us feel like second-class citizens anymore,” said Stewart.

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