Hawaii lawmakers may establish marriage-equality task force


HILO — Despite the Hawaii Legislature’s failure to take up marriage equality legislation this session, gay rights groups say they hope that discussion scheduled today on two resolutions will yield progress on an issue whose time has come.

Sponsored by state Sen. Clayton Hee and state Sen. Mike Gabbard, Senate Resolutions 123 and 166 will be heard today at 10:30 a.m. at the capitol.

The resolutions seek to establish a task force through the dean of the William S. Richardson School of Law that would be charged with studying the “social, economic, and religious impacts of enacting marriage equality in Hawaii.”

“While we were disappointed the Legislature didn’t hold hearings on marriage equality measures earlier this session, we are encouraged that lawmakers are now considering establishing a task force that will gather information that we believe will pave the way for marriage equality in Hawaii,” said Lois Perrin, founding member of Hawaii United for Marriage and ACLU-Hawaii legal director.

The discussion about allowing same-sex marriage in Hawaii comes on the heels of the decision to legalize civil unions last year, providing same-sex couples with the same rights and privileges as heterosexual married couples. More than 700 couples in the state were issued civil unions between January and December 2012. But, supporters say, the civil unions law was just a step in the process, and there will not be true equality until same-sex couples are allowed to marry.

In February, President Barack Obama came out in support of marriage equality legislation in his State of the Union speech. Gov. Neil Abercrombie issued a statement shortly thereafter calling on state legislators to move forward with legalizing gay marriage.

“I have always supported human equality and agree with President Obama and our Congressional Delegation that all of our citizens should be treated equally,” he said. “Hawaii is a state defined by our diversity, compassion and aloha. I encourage our state legislators to hold hearings on the marriage equality bill so that we can further discussions on equal treatment under the law.”

State Sen. Gil Kahele, D-Hilo, was among those who introduced legislation this year to legalize same-sex marriage, but his Senate Bill 1369 failed to be heard by the Senate committees on Ways and Means, and Judiciary and Labor after passing its first reading on Jan. 28.

“I think the time has come,” he said in late January. “I think everyone should be free to do and have all the same rights as the rest of us.”

Members on the task force would include two members of Hawaii’s legal community, two members of the business community, including one representing the tourism industry, a current or former clergy member, and a member of a prominent community organization that advocates for marriage equality. The Senate president and Speaker of the House or their designees would also serve, as well as one of the authors of a University of Hawaii study on the impact of same-sex marriage on Hawaii’s economy and government.

The task force would be instructed to weigh the impact of U.S. Supreme Court decisions on California’s Proposition 8 and on the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The court will hear those cases on Tuesday and Wednesday, with decisions due in the summer. The task force would also be charged with inspecting ongoing legislation in other states considering marriage equality measures. A total of nine states and the District of Columbia now recognize same-sex marriages.

The task force’s report would be due Nov. 1, well before the start of the 2014 Legislative Session.

“It will certainly expand the conversation and we feel at the end of the day it will help unite the people of Hawaii that all families — gay or straight — should receive equal treatment under the law,” Perrin said.