HONOLULU - A Hawaii judge on Thursday ruled the state's brand new gay marriage law is legal, despite a challenge saying voters thought they barred same-sex marriage 15 years ago in the state constitution.
Hawaii Circuit Judge Karl Sakamoto said the 1998 amendment didn't force the Legislature to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Sakamoto says it doesn't factor into lawmakers' ability to allow gay couples to wed.
"Same-sex marriage in Hawaii is legal," Sakamoto ruled after hearing arguments for more than an hour from the state attorney general and a Republican lawmaker who voted against the bill in the House last week.
The challenge brought by Rep. Bob McDermott was an attempt to block the state from enacting the new law, signed Wednesday by Gov. Neil Abercrombie. The measure allows the state Department of Health to begin issuing licenses to same-sex couples Dec. 2. Ceremonies can begin the same day.
McDermott's challenge centered on language in the amendment that he said trumped lawmakers wanting to redefine marriage. The amendment reads: "The Legislature shall have the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples."
McDermott's lawyer Jack Dwyer argued that voters were told that phrasing meant they were voting against gay marriage.
"All you have to do is determine what the intent of the people was," Dwyer said.
Attorney General David Louie argued lawmakers didn't pass the law based on the merits of the constitutional amendment. He said they were simply doing their normal job of debating and enacting laws.
"The Legislature can change its mind at any time on any statute it wants," Louie said.
Sakamoto agreed, saying that even if the language voters considered was unclear, lawmakers still have the right to make laws.
Dwyer said he and McDermott have not decided whether to appeal the case.
"All you can do is all you can do, and that's what we tried to do today - we tried to give a voice to the people of Hawaii," McDermott said. "We fell short, and I guess that's my fault, but we did the best we can do."
McDermott, like many other opponents of gay marriage and the special session used to pass the Hawaii law, said he thinks residents should be able to vote on gay marriage.
Gay marriage proponents have argued that civil rights issues are rarely resolved with a majority vote of the people.
Hawaii's law makes it the 15th U.S. state to allow gay marriage, along with the District of Columbia. The governor of Illinois is expected to sign a gay marriage bill into law there next week.
Hawaii's law is expected to benefit thousands of gay couples in the state and boost tourism to the islands as couples use the destination for gay weddings and honeymoons.