State and national spotlights will be on the Hawaii state Capitol this week as lawmakers go into special session Monday to consider a bill to legalize same-sex marriage.
Last week, Maui County lawmakers' offices reported being inundated with letters, email, faxes and phone calls from those with competing views on the issue seen variously as a matter of justice and civil rights, as the religious conviction that marriage is only between a man and a woman or as a question for voters to decide.
Vote counting in the state Senate shows lawmakers there approving the bill by a wide margin.
Kihei’s Joseph D’Antonio (right) and Marlowe Hyer take a stroll on Keawakapu Beach on Friday morning. They still wear the wedding rings they exchanged when they were married in their former hometown of San Francisco in 2004. A California court later invalidated their marriage. They hope to exchange vows again on Maui if the state Legislature approves same-sex marriage in a special session that begins Monday.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
In the House of Representatives last week, there were 28 to 30 votes in favor (26 are needed) of extending marriage to same-sex couples, said Speaker Joe Souki of Wailuku.
Souki, a lifelong Catholic - with his church firmly opposed to the measure - said he continued to have reservations about the bill but would likely support it. He said he could see how votes were lining up.
"This passage (of the bill) is inevitable," he said. "It's going to happen.
"My concern is to see the church has exemptions," Souki said, allowing clergy to conduct marriages for unions of men and women only, as "they've always done."
If the state Legislature doesn't act on gay marriage, then the courts will, he said, and they "won't provide for any exemptions for the church."
While the bill would give same-sex couples full rights under the law, allowing them to marry and making no legal distinction between same- and opposite-sex couples, it also would protect religious freedom by:
* Ensuring that no clergy or other officer of a religious organization would be required to solemnize any marriage.
* Clarifying that unless a religious organization allows use of its facilities or grounds by the general public for weddings for a profit, churches would not be required to make their facilities or grounds available for solemnization of any marriage celebration.
Same-sex marriage opponents are down but not giving up.
"It would appear that it's going to be difficult for us to prevail, but we're hopeful," said the Rev. Gary Secor, vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Honolulu. "The history of the church is that we have not tended to always go with the popular or prevailing opinion about things."
The special session follows the 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that overturned part of a federal Defense of Marriage Act. The law kept legally married same-sex couples from receiving tax, health and pension benefits otherwise available to married couples.
In light of the high court's ruling, Gov. Neil Abercrombie called Hawaii lawmakers into a special session to extend the right to marry and receive marital benefits to same-sex couples.
State Sens. Roz Baker (West and South Maui) and J. Kalani English (East Maui, Upcountry, Molokai and Lanai) said that they favor passage of the bill, officially called Senate Bill 1.
"I am in strong support of providing marriage equality under the law," Baker said via email. "I believe SB1 protects religious liberty. It does not interfere with religious expression, and it does not impose one's religious beliefs on another. The bill is about extending equal rights under the law."
Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran (Central Maui) said he was leaning in favor of the bill, but he was studying the measure's religious exemptions to ensure they would not allow a commercial wedding business to use a church facility.
"There are a lot of concerns in my community about that," he said.
Meanwhile, in the House, Rep. Justin Woodson, who was appointed to his Kahului seat early this year by Abercrombie, said he would vote against the same-sex marriage measure.
"Ultimately, I think every community should vote directly on the issue," he said.
Kahului residents are "not in favor of the measure," he said. "I'm going to do what my district says. And my district's not for it."
He added that he believes the outcome of the same-sex marriage bill "could go either way."
Rep. Angus McKelvey (West Maui) said he was undecided last week, having not seen the bill as it would be presented to the House.
McKelvey said that he would introduce his own bill Monday to seek a way to allow people to have marriage benefits under federal law "while not burdening other people's First Amendment rights."
"The bill would basically separate church and state into their two separate universes," he said. "There should be two separate universes so one doesn't collide with the other."
Rep. Mele Carroll (East Maui, Molokai and Lanai) said she was undecided and that she doesn't support a special session to consider same-sex marriage.
Efforts to contact Reps. Kaniela Ing (South Maui) and Kyle Yamashita (Upcountry) via phone messages and email were unsuccessful last week.
In recent weeks, several Maui churches have taken out newspaper advertisements opposing same-sex marriage.
Valley Isle Fellowship Pastor Stephen Kaneshiro said that his church was among nine Baptist churches to purchase a newspaper ad calling on legislators to reject same-sex marriage. The ad cited biblical passages to contend that marriage is only for one man and one woman.
"Marriage is a very sacred institution," Kaneshiro said last week. "We see this as a moral issue rather than a civil rights issue."
Scripture calls homosexuality a sin, one of many, including adultery and masturbation, that are all sexual expressions outside of marriage, he said.
Kaneshiro said he finds it unacceptable to condone same-sex unions in society.
He asked whether civil rights would be extended to polygamists or polyamorists, who are those in love or romantically involved with multiple partners.
"Where does the civil rights stop?" he asked.
The gay rights movement has been compared to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, he said, but African-Americans are born with their skin pigmentation, while homosexuality is a lifestyle choice.
Kaneshiro said he has never seen scientific evidence of a "gay gene" or that people are born homosexual.
While such views have been seen as intolerant or bigoted, Kaneshiro said that intolerance cuts both ways.
"Aren't they being intolerant of my views as well?" he asked.
Kaneshiro said he worries that passage of the same-sex marriage measure would lead to civil rights prosecutions of people who don't approve of homosexuality.
"It begins to open a Pandora's box, if you will," he said.
The Rev. Monsignor Terry Watanabe, vicar forane of the Maui Vicariate and senior pastor at St. Theresa Roman Catholic Church in Kihei, said that the church's teachings about marriage are clear.
"Marriage between man and a woman is God's law," he said. "There's no compromising of that."
Catholics are free as anyone else to "speak up for what we believe" and about "what should be happening in society," he said. "What legacy are we leaving behind for our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren? I think we need to look at that."
Everyone should have equal rights and privileges, Watanabe said. However, "the definition of marriage should not be changed . . . It has been defined by God."
Church members are not intolerant of gay people, he said, adding that they can receive help, support and counseling from the church or food, if needed, from St. Theresa's Hale Kau Kau daily meals program.
"It's a matter of loving the sinner, but hating the sin," he said. "Because we don't support their view doesn't mean we hate them."
First Assembly of God Senior Pastor James Marocco said that the same-sex marriage bill undercuts the fabric of society.
The issue "should be weighed very seriously before it's decided," Marocco said, arguing that the matter should be put before the people for a vote.
"Marriage is that which holds our culture together," he said. "It's a covenant given by God, a building block of society. . . . Same-sex marriage is a destruction of marriage. It's destroying what marriage is."
Jacce Mikulanec, a board member of the Japanese American Citizens League of Honolulu, one of the founding members Hawaii United for Marriage Campaign, said that gay rights advocates are in full support of not infringing on religious freedom.
"No one wants to force any religious institution to do anything they don't want to do," he said.
At least 30 churches and religious communities support same-sex marriage, he said.
"They don't want to be prevented from extending God's right to marry these couples," Mikulanec said.
As far as holding a voter referendum on the issue, Mikulanec said there are not many times when civil rights issues are put up for a vote.
"Minority groups don't have majority support for their causes," he said.
Lawmakers will thoroughly consider the issues and hear what members of the public have to say, he said.
"The people will have their voices heard," Mikulanec said.
* Brian Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.