Hawaii prepares for special session on marriage equality

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Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie. - PHOTO: Flickr/Gov. Neil Abercrombie

Aloha lawmakers. Democratic Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie is calling legislators to Honolulu for a special session in late October to take up his marriage equality bill.

“The decision to call a special session is based on doing what is right to create equity for all in Hawaii,” the governor said on Sept. 9.

In the mid-1990s, the 50th state in the union was poised to become the first jurisdiction in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. A case filed by three same-sex couples seeking to marry had resulted in the state Supreme Court finding that barring gays and lesbians from marriage violated the state constitution and amounted to sex discrimination.

The Supreme Court remanded the case to a trial court, where a judge found that the state of Hawaii lacked a compelling interest in denying marriage licenses to gay couples.

But before the legal dispute ended, Hawaii voters, in a campaign heavily funded with money from the Mormon church, approved a constitutional amendment empowering the Legislature to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

Now Abercrombie wants the Legislature to remove the gender restrictions on marriage.

He said he called for a special session after talking with aides, lawmakers, activists and citizens.

“As a former legislator, I have great respect for the Legislature and the legislative process. The merits of holding a special session include the opportunity for the Legislature to focus squarely on this important issue, without having to divert attention to the hundreds of other bills introduced during a regular session,” the governor said.

Earlier this summer, Abercrombie offered a marriage equality bill based on a Senate proposal. The measure guarantees that a religious official will not be forced to officiate at a same-sex wedding and a religious institution will not be required to host a same-sex wedding.

The governor’s office said the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision clearing the way for federal recognition of same-sex marriages created a can’t wait situation for Hawaii. Same-sex couples there have marriage-like protections through state-sanctioned civil unions but those relationships are not recognized by the federal government.

Steven Levinson at Equality Hawaii and Hawaii United for Marriage said the votes look close.

“Since this morning, we’ve counted the votes over and over again and I won’t sugarcoat it: It’s going to be extremely close, Levinson said on Sept. 9. “Several lawmakers still haven’t decided which way they’ll vote. If we’re going to win their support, it’s going to take the most rigorous lobbying and grassroots organizing we’ve ever run. We have to mobilize tens of thousands of supporters to take action in key districts across the state.”

If lawmakers pass the equality bill, same-sex couples could begin marrying in Hawaii on Nov. 18.

The special session will be taking place just days after Illinois lawmakers gather for their fall veto session, which might include consideration of a marriage equality bill that passed the Senate but stalled in the House.

Illinois equality advocates will march on Springfield on Oct. 22 to call for passage of the bill.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. This summer, officials in eight counties in New Mexico and one county in Pennsylvania began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Freedom fall

Two states – Hawaii and Illinois – could pass marriage equality bills next month. Hawaii will hold a special session on Oct. 28. Illinois lawmakers gather for a fall veto session beginning Oct. 22.

Also, on Oct. 23, the New Mexico Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments over whether same-sex marriage should be legal throughout the state.