Marriage equality will soon be the law of the land in Hawaii — arguably, the state where the national debate over the issue started.
In a resounding 19-4 vote Tuesday, the Hawaii Senate approved the marriage equality bill, amended to expand exemptions for religious institutions opposed to marriage for same-sex couples. Two senators were excused.
“The arc of justice does not bend on its own,” said Sen. Brickwood Galuteria (D-12th) during the final debate in his chamber. “It bends because we bend it ourselves, we put our hands on it and bend it towards justice.”
Senate Bill 1 - House Draft 1, the Hawaii Marriage Equality Act, will now go to the desk of Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who said he will sign it into law Wednesday morning. The Hawaii House amended and passed the bill Nov. 9.
With Abercrombie’s signature, same-sex couples will be eligible for marriage licenses Dec. 2.
Abercrombie called a special session of the legislature to consider the bill, resulting in dozens and dozens or hours of debate including oral testimony from Hawaii citizens and thousands of written testimonies submitted to lawmakers.
In the final moments of the debate, some members of the chamber, like Sen. Will Espero (D-19th), addressed concerns over religious exemptions in the bill, saying religious people and institutions who oppose marriage equally are protected.
“If your church does not want to conduct a same-sex marriage, it does not have to conduct a same-sex marriage,” Espero said. “You do not have to attend a same-sex marriage.”
The Hawaii Legislature’s action comes on the heels of Illinois, which passed a similar bill Nov. 5. If the Hawaii bill is signed into law Tuesday, the state will become the 15th to legalize marriage equality. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn plans to sign his state’s marriage bill Nov. 20, making it the 16th state.
Hawaii has debated the issue of marriage equality since the early ’90s in the form of a legal challenge to the state’s prohibition of legal marriages for same-sex couple. Subsequent consideration and a ruling on the case led to a 1998 vote-approved amendment to the Hawaii Constitution that allowed the state “to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples.” That amendment did not take away the Hawaii Legislature’s power to decide on the issue, Sen. Les Ihara, Jr. (D-10th) argued in the debate.
Ihara compared the passage of the bill Tuesday to a “boomerang that was launched here in 1997” coming back to the lawmakers.
Another senator welcomed the historic implications of the bill becoming law.
“This is one more step on our path to liberty and justice for all,” said Sen. Russell Ruderman (D-2nd). “Now we can achieve and celebrate a great victory. Today in the Aloha State, thank God, love wins.”
Following the victory for marriage equality proponents, Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry recalled the history of the marriage equality fight in Hawaii.
“After twenty years of work to win the state where it all started, the Hawaii freedom to marry victory today is especially sweet,” Wolfson said in a statement. “It also shows how far we have come. The same legislature that in the 1990’s passed the first of the anti-gay constitutional amendments now voted resoundingly for the freedom to marry. Like the millions of Americans who have evolved to become the national majority for marriage, Hawaii’s leaders opened their hearts and changed their minds, writing this new freedom to marry chapter in America’s history of liberty and justice for all.”
UPDATE — 6:20 p.m. ET
President Barack Obama issued the following statement to BuzzFeed following the passage of the marriage equality bill:
“I want to congratulate the Hawaii State Legislature on passing legislation in support of marriage equality. With today’s vote, Hawaii joins a growing number of states that recognize that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters should be treated fairly and equally under the law. Whenever freedom and equality are affirmed, our country becomes stronger. By giving loving gay and lesbian couples the right to marry if they choose, Hawaii exemplifies the values we hold dear as a nation. I’ve always been proud to have been born in Hawaii, and today’s vote makes me even prouder. And Michelle and I extend our best wishes to all those in Hawaii whose families will now be given the security and respect they deserve.”