Local supporters hope rulings boost same-sex unions

Some Maui supporters of same-sex marriage were up before dawn Wednesday anticipating a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that they called historic and a step toward legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.

“My God, it’s awesome,” said Wailuku resident Llevellyn Lightsey. “Hopefully, at some point we will have more than civil unions in Hawaii, so we can take advantage of the full benefits.”

After hearing about the ruling through a 4:09 a.m. text from the Human Rights Campaign, Lightsey said he and Michael Waddell, his partner of 39 years, tuned in to CNN to learn more.

“It’s a very positive step forward,” said Waddell, general manager of the Maui Sunseeker LGBT Resort in Kihei. “I think it’s a huge mark in history for our country.

“I think it’s the precept for making same-sex marriage legal in the state. I’m hopeful that’s going to happen in 2014.”

While Hawaii has legalized civil unions for same-sex couples, the Legislature last session didn’t take up a marriage equality bill that would have allowed same-sex couples to marry.

Maui County Democratic state Sen. Roz Baker, who introduced the measure with state Sen. Gil Kahele, said she hadn’t spoken to any of her colleagues Wednesday morning but hoped the ruling would “give additional impetus” for the Legislature to take up the issue next session.

“For me, it’s always been about equal treatment under the law, equal rights under the law for anybody that is similarly situated,” said Baker, who represents South and West Maui. “The law should treat them the same. The time for Hawaii to act is upon us, and the Supreme Court has indicated that inequality under the law is not acceptable.”

Baker said the marriage equality bill wasn’t heard last session while legislators waited for court decisions in the Supreme Court cases, as well as another federal case, Jackson v. Abercrombie, brought in Hawaii by two lesbians who said the state’s failure to allow same-sex marriage violated guarantees of the U.S. Constitution. After U.S. District Judge Alan Kay rejected the women’s claim in an August decision, the decision was appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a statement Wednesday, Gov. Neil Abercrombie said that he supported the Supreme Court decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act in U.S. v. Windsor, thus affording full federal rights to couples married in states that allow same-sex marriage.

Abercrombie also said he was pleased that the Supreme Court, in Hollingsworth v. Perry, didn’t overturn a federal district court ruling striking down Proposition 8 that attempted to bar same-sex marriage in California.

“Although the Supreme Court did not directly require that same-sex couples in other states be allowed to marry, I am encouraged by the fact that language in the Windsor ruling supports my position in the Hawaii lawsuit,” Abercrombie said. “In that lawsuit, I argue the Constitution’s equal protection clause requires same-sex marriage in all states, including Hawaii.”

While the state legislative bill will carry over into the next session, Baker said it doesn’t have many sponsors. “It doesn’t, I think, reflect the support in the Legislature,” Baker said. She said legislators may decide to introduce a new measure to allow more legislators to sign on.

“People always say it’s an election year, you can’t get anything done,” she said. “But it’s an election year and you need to take the right action. You need to do the right thing.

“I think the sentiment, all of the polls, everything I have seen is that Hawaii is supportive. Hopefully, that will translate to hearings in both the House and the Senate and moving something to the governor’s desk next year.”

Maui Democratic state Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, who voted in favor of civil unions, said: “I get the sense that the Legislature’s still pretty divided on same-sex marriage, as opposed to civil unions. Even people who voted for civil unions – some of them differentiate between marriage and civil unions.”

In a statement released Wednesday, House Speaker Joe Souki of Maui said: “I expect we will come to some decision as a caucus as to how we want to proceed.”

Maui state Rep. Angus McKelvey said state legislators would have to discuss what happens next. He said the Supreme Court ruling in Windsor doesn’t extend federal benefits to same-sex couples who are in civil unions living in Hawaii. He said one question is whether rights to federal benefits extend to married same-sex couples who live in states, such as Hawaii, that don’t recognize such marriages.

McKelvey said that it appeared there was no immediate legal impact in Hawaii of the ruling in the Proposition 8 case.

But at the Maui Sunseeker, owner Chuck Spence said that he had already seen an effect almost immediately after the ruling Wednesday morning with honeymoon bookings by two same-sex couples from California and Washington.

“People were waiting to get married and have a fabulous honeymoon on Maui,” said Spence, who expects such business to increase.

Last year, when more than 700 civil unions were reported in the state, Spence said Maui Sunseeker arranged or coordinated 53 of them.

On Wednesday morning, Spence set his alarm so he would be awake for the Supreme Court announcement at 10 a.m. on the East Coast. Anticipating the decision, he had prepared a draft, then once the announcement was made, sent out an email blast to 5,000 subscribers about the ruling and promoting Maui Sunseeker as a place to honeymoon.

While same-sex couples make up much of its business, Spence said that the resort also has many heterosexual guests who like the “impeccably clean rooms, reasonable rates and adult-only atmosphere.”

“It’s a historic, monumental time for us,” Spence said. “As a gay man who lived through so many years of oppression, it’s just unbelievable to me. We’re at a point where we’re getting more and more marriage equality and civil rights.

“Ultimately, it’s just a matter of time before Hawaii converts our laws from civil unions to full marriage equality.”

Kevin Rebelo, co-owner of gayhawaiiwedding.com and hawaiiwedding.com on Maui, estimated the company arranges five to six civil unions a month. He said clients were calling Wednesday morning, and he was happy the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the Supreme Court. But he said the ruling was “kind of bittersweet.”

“It’s fantastic for those states where gay marriage is legal,” Rebelo said. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t apply to us in Hawaii because they’re not recognizing civil unions. We look forward to the day in Hawaii when it will actually mean something to us.”

Waddell said he and Lightsey, who met in college, have a reciprocal benefits arrangement and “a lot of legal documents” to protect their rights as a couple. Instead of entering into a civil union that would have to be undone, the couple decided to wait until same-sex marriage is legalized in Hawaii, Waddell said.

He and Lightsey have “traveled the world,” Waddell said, always carrying with them “a whole satchel of documents” including advanced medical directives, powers of attorney and wills “in case something happens and you end up in the hospital.”

“We’ll probably still travel with some of those things if gay marriage is legal in Hawaii if it’s not legal all over the country,” Waddell said. “A lot of people take that for granted.”

He said he believes fewer people will be opposing same-sex marriage.

“People are recognizing that being on the wrong side of history is not necessarily a good place to be,” Waddell said. “There’s going to be a lot of change in this country.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.