Debate reverberates across islands


The current debate within the state Legislature over legalizing same-sex marriage has drawn more interest from across the state and the country than any other legislation in recent memory, says state Rep. Clift Tsuji, D-Hilo, Keaukaha.

“Absolutely, this is the biggest,” he said during a phone interview Monday, while taking a break from listening to testimony at the Capitol. “Statewide, we’ve exceeded 5,100 testifiers. … In my office, we’ve received voice mails … emails … letters, postcards. We haven’t been able to respond to it all.”

The only discussion that captured anywhere near this amount of public interest was a bill on taro research being debated about eight years ago, said Tsuji, who was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 2004.

“But this is much heavier. … The commentary from the public-private sector … and the churches are quite involved and opinionated,” he said.

Tsuji, who has described himself as a supporter of “traditional marriage,” said that, based solely on the sheer amount of testimony he has received in opposition to Senate Bill 1 — which would legalize gay marriage in Hawaii — he will likely vote against the measure.

“I have to listen to the people, and try to interpret and read into it. I hear again and again, this fighting slogan: ‘Let the people decide.’ They are referring to putting it on the ballot, similar to the vote that made it onto the ballot in 1998,” he said.

“I’m a strong believer, at this point. If everything remains equal, it (the public testimony) is heavily on the one side of the issue … and it’s to not support this legislation and vote ‘No.’”

In describing the mood at the Capitol, Tsuji said he had been pleasantly surprised by the relative calm with which participants in the process are acting.

“It’s very contentious, with strong opinions on both sides,” he said. “But, to my surprise, I haven’t heard loud shouting, or people walking out in groups … or negative booing or shouting. The contention is more on the legislative level.”

Among the questions that have so far been given a lot of attention are how churches will be treated should they refuse to perform wedding ceremonies for gay couples, as well as the handling of private businesses that might refuse to accept same-sex unions — including photographers, wedding gown makers, bakers or florists, Tsuji said.

“If they refuse to provide their services, would the law strike them down?”

“These are definitely areas that may come up,” Tsuji said.

Other Big Island lawmakers could not be reached for comment.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.