Friday | January 20, 2017
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Lawmakers react to gay marriage special session

In less than two months, Hawaii lawmakers will gather to take on the issue of gay marriage without any distractions in a special session called by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

It’s an issue that has evaded a full resolution at the Hawaii Capitol, with momentum for marriage equality advocates being fairly recent and incremental.

It was only in 2012 that the state began accepting civil unions, and it’s been about three months since state senators passed a resolution in favor of a task force to study the economic, religious and social impacts of granting full marriage rights to same-sex couples.

Yet sometimes history moves faster than the pace of government, and Abercrombie, spurred by recent legal victories for gay marriage at the federal level, has said he believes that now is the time to act.

The four- to five-day special session, scheduled to start Oct. 28, is anticipated to cost about $25,000, and the outcome is not certain.

Legislators say the votes appear to be there in the Senate, but the House remains a wild card. Both are dominated by Democrats.

The response from Big Isle legislators ranged from enthusiastic to tepid, with some not quite willing to show their cards.

“I think the governor knew of what the challenges were so hopefully he did his homework before he called the session,” said Rep. Mark Nakashima, D-Hamakua, Hilo.

Nakashima said he has heard from both sides of the issue stating they have the votes they need.

“Sometimes you have to pull the trigger to see who is right,” he said. “In this case, it probably would be important to really know in advance what the numbers are before you kind of move ahead on it.”

Nakashima, who had co-sponsored the House version of the task force resolution, said he is “generally” in support of the bill.

Rep. Clift Tsuji, D-Hilo, was the most critical of the decision, noting that even four or five days may not be enough to settle the debate.

“It’s like a two-minute offense … going for the touchdown and throwing a Hail Mary,” he said, using a football analogy.

Tsuji referred to himself as undecided, later adding, “I still partially hold to the concept of marriage means one man and one woman.”

“As a legislator, I will have to listen to both sides,” he said.

Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, said he is “very excited” about the opportunity to pass a gay marriage bill, believing “it’s an idea whose time has come.”

Ruderman said he doesn’t think a special session is needed but believes it is preferable to act sooner than later.

“There are so many ways for proposals to get watered down or forgotten,” he said.

“The special session will be a nice single focus, and no chance of this issue getting lost in the shuffle.”

A gay marriage bill was introduced this last session at the start of the year but failed to move out of a Senate committee.

Sen. Gil Kahele, D-Hilo, was one of the co-sponsors.

He said he didn’t know why it didn’t move forward.

Like the one proposed by Abercrombie, that bill provided exemptions for religious organizations that may not want to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples.

Kahele said he believes that exemption is important.

“It’s time to move forward and do the right thing,” he said, referring to gay marriage.

“At the same time, we got to make sure that the churches and others have their rights also.”

Kahele said he supports the special session but noted legislators have to be careful not to make even the smallest mistake.

“Even a typo can send the thing back,” he said.

While some argue that gay marriage will help tourism in the state, Kahele breaks the issue down more fundamentally.

“I believe, especially for ours, the Aloha State, this is it,” he said. “We have to have aloha for all.”

Isle lawmakers said they have received a flurry of emails from both sides of the issue, including from people off and on island.

“I respect both opinions, I really do,” said Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, Ka‘u, referring to the input as “very passionate.”

In regard to the bill, Green said that everyone should be treated equally no matter their differences, but declined to say whether he plans to vote for or against the proposal.

“I think we need to treat everyone as equal as a society and I extend that to people who are religious and who are gay,” he said.

“I think my quote should stand for itself.”

Rep. Richard Onishi said he has received close to 100 emails a day on the issue, including many form emails which are identical.

“So we are constantly being bombarded by both sides,” he said.

Onishi, a Democrat whose district stretches from Hilo to Volcano, said he is in support of the bill.

He said now is a good to time to act given the decisions by the Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, allowing federal benefits to be given to same-sex couples.

“For me, it’s basically an equality issue,” Onishi said, noting couples in civil unions can’t get federal benefits.

That’s what Elena Cabatu of Hilo has been waiting for.

Cabatu has been with her partner, Theresa Jennette, for almost 10 years.

They have a daughter together and are waiting for the day to tie the knot.

“We are a happy family,” she said. “I feel like we are living the dream come true.”

They both decided to not go for a civil union, Cabatu said, since it falls short of the recognition they believe their relationship deserves.

“We were actually waiting for marriage equality to happen,” she said.

With the special session around the corner, Cabatu sees that opportunity as within reach.

“I couldn’t be more hopeful,” she said. “I really want it to pass. I really want to plan a wedding.”

As far as the task force is concerned, the issue is in the hands of the Legislature.

Its chairman, Avi Soifer, dean of the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law, said the group has formed but isn’t scheduling a meeting until it sees what comes out of the special session.

“We are kind of waiting to go if we need to,” he said.

“I don’t think there’s much for us to do at this point.”

Email Tom Callis at