HONOLULU, Hawaii — Hundreds waited in Hawaii’s state capitol rotunda Monday to testify on the same-sex marriage bill, known as Senate Bill 1, in front of the state Senate during a special session of the legislature called by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.
The Abercrombie administration wrote the bill in hopes of satisfying marriage equality supporters while allowing for religious exemptions. If the bill passes, same-sex couples will be able to marry in Hawaii starting on Nov. 18.
After a long day of testimony, the Senate’s Committee on Labor and Judiciary recommended passage of the bill late Monday night on a 5-2 vote.
Above, people wait in the state capitol auditorium for the state Senate hearing. Many wore plastic rainbow leis as well as white and purple orchid leis. Another large group wore rainbow tie-dye shirts.
Those not able to fit in the auditorium watched from televisions streaming the hearing in the capitol rotunda.
After state Sen. Clayton Hee, who is chairman of the Committee on Labor and Judiciary, opened the hearing on SB1 at 10:30 a.m., Gov. Abercrombie spoke in support of passing the legislation and for drafting the bill to accommodate “the first amendment in respect to people’s religious rights.” He finished with a quote from the Dali Lama:
“By maintaining sharp awareness of the function of religion as expressed in the actuality of all teachings we can escape the ruinous error of sectarian discrimination.”
Hawaii Attorney General David Louie spoke next and was asked about federal benefits for same-sex couples who marry in another state, but reside in Hawaii.
“If a Hawaii couple married in California they would be able to receive their federal benefits,” Louie said. “But they would not be married in Hawaii.”
He then went on to clarify he meant most federal benefits, although some, like those granted under the Family and Medical Leave Act and Medicaid, are dependent on domicile and currently not allowed in Hawaii for same-sex couples.
State Sen. Sam Slom, an opponent of same-sex marriage and expected to vote against the bill, asked for further clarification on the issues of benefits and taxes: “Is it not true that in fact the federal government and Congress could make changes to allow for benefits?”
“Certainly, it is in the power of Congress to do almost anything,” Louie replied. “Unfortunately, at this point in time, Congress is largely dysfunctional, as compared to our legislature.”
“Some might say that our legislature is also dysfunctional, but that was not the question,” Slom fired back. “The question was in fact that Congress does have the power to make these changes.”
“That is correct,” replied Louie.
“And everyone who is talking about the 14 states that have adopted same-sex marriage provisions,” Slom continued, “that means 36 states in fact have not — is that correct also?”
“I will defer to your math,” the Attorney General replied, which got a few chuckles.
Next, representatives from Planned Parenthood, League of Women Voters, and Hawaii United for Marriage spoke in favor of the bill, while a representative for the Roman Catholic Church in Hawaii spoke in opposition.
Over 1,800 people said they wanted to testify, so the general public was allowed only one minute. Approaching the entrance to the auditorium, people’s bags were searched and security personnel used metal detector wands to check for unwanted objects.
“This hearing is a little different than most because of the passionate sides and inflammatory statements that have been communicated to certain members of the legislature as well as in the community,” Sen. Clayton Hee told BuzzFeed about the safety precautions set up for the event. “Unlike most hearings there’s a decided focus on health and safety, so given the climate in the mainland United States, I’m particularly concerned about some random event in a tragedy.”
Emotional testimonies were presented from a range of people from a gay Vietnam veteran to the daughter of a transgender parent urging the passage of the bill. Some opposing SB1 urged the senators to allow the people to vote on same-sex marriage in the form of a constitutional amendment question on the ballot. Both sides spoke about why they married, what love means to them, and on the importance of family.
Late in the evening, Chairman Hee, Vice Chair Maile Shimabukuro, Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria, Majority Policy Leader Les Ihara and Sen. Malama Salomon are voted in favor of the bill, while Sen. Mike Gabbard, who is the father of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a supporter of marriage equality, and Republican Sen. Slom voted against it.
The full Senate could vote as early as Tuesday to pass the bill, with only Gabbard, Slom, and two or three others likely to vote against the bill.
The situation in the House is more questionable, where 26 votes are needed to pass the bill, but it is still likely to pass, as 27 representatives have said they will vote in favor of SB1 and several remain undecided.
A second public hearing is planned before the House committees on Judiciary and Finance on Thursday. The House will consider amending SB1 to grant broader exemptions for religious leaders who would not have to perform same-sex marriages if they don’t operate “primarily as a for-profit business.”
It would not change Hawaii’s public accommodations law, which bans discrimination in places open to general public as customers, and in 2006 was amended to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
If an amended SB1 passes the committees on Judiciary and Finance, it goes back to the Senate, and if the chamber accepts the new language, then it could be signed by Gov. Abercrombie early the following week.
[This post was updated Tuesday morning to reflect the late-night committee vote.]