Protesters seek ballot initiative on gay marriage

KAHULUI – Hundreds of Maui residents attended a prayer gathering Sunday afternoon in Kahului that included calls against same-sex marriages and the special legislative session that begins today and is expected to make gay nuptials legal in Hawaii.

“As many of you know, we need a miracle, so let us all pray,” said Pastor James Marocco of King’s Cathedral to a crowded lot across Maui Beach Hotel, referencing news reports that indicate there are enough votes for passage of a same-sex marriage bill.

The gathering of members from at least 15 churches was prompted by the special session that opens today on Oahu. Protesters held signs along Kaahumanu Avenue opposing gay marriages and asking for the decision to be put to the voters as a constitutional amendment, rather than through legislative action.

“We believe that our religious right is being attacked by this legislation,” said Kuulei Cagasan of Christ the King Church. “I think we should let the people decide and vote on this and not let the politicians make the decisions.”

Men and women of the clergy singled out state senators and representatives of Maui County, asking the crowd to pray and to encourage the lawmakers to vote against the bill.

Danny Collier of Waiehu attended the rally with his family and held a sign reading, “Don’t destroy marriage,” in capital letters. Collier said he has five children and believes marriage between a man and woman is “sacred in Hawaii.”

“We don’t hate (gays), we just have things in the Bible that we can’t accept,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with the people; it’s just the things that they believe. We had a lady over here holding a sign that said ‘equal rights,’ and I understand that, but it’s not equal rights if the Legislature . . . voted themselves. That’s what they’re doing right now. . . . I say let the people vote.”

Marocco, who helped organize the gathering, agreed with Collier and wondered why lawmakers were “rushing into” the bill. He noted that Hawaii voters approved a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriages in 1998.

“It’s absolutely insane. Why not let the people vote on it?” he asked. “If you think policy has changed the last 15 years and now people want this, then let them vote.

But why would you rush it into Legislature? It makes no sense.”

Not all religious faiths in Maui County hold the same view. Members of the Episcopal, Jewish and Buddhist faiths are among those who support the gay marriage legislation and would willingly hold same-sex marriages in their churches and temples if the law were approved.

The Rev. Kerith Harding of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Keokea, who is gay, likened the opposition to same-sex marriages to those against interracial marriages a generation ago. She said her aunt’s marriage to a Japanese man “raised eyebrows” 45 years ago, but “look how things have changed today.”

Harding, who married her partner in July 2011 in Connecticut, has been with the Upcountry church for nearly a year and preaches a message of equality across sexual orientations.

“As Episcopalians, we have something called the Baptismal Covenant: We promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons and strive for justice and peace of all people,” she said. “For us, seeking civil marriage is part of that.

“This is an issue of peace and justice, and we believe that people can live even deeper in their faith by having two committed individuals of God within their Christian community.”

Pastor Jack Belsom of Iao United Church of Christ said that the opposition to gay marriage reminds him of his days growing up in New Orleans.

“I grew up in a segregated South . . . and some of the same stuff you heard back then you see again, and you just say, ‘When are we going to learn and get over this?’ ” said Belsom, who moved to Maui in 1992 and has spent 21 years in the church.

He has conducted several civil unions for gay couples and has declared his church to be an “open and affirming” one, regardless of sexual orientation.

“Some churches are open but not necessarily affirming,” he said. “Some churches want to fix them; that’s not us. If that’s the way God made them, then that’s the way they are, and we should celebrate and affirm that.

“We don’t believe we have the right to discriminate in any way.”

Rabbi David Glickman of the Jewish Congregation of Maui in Kihei said he, too, was against “discrimination of a whole group of people” and that “common sense should prevail.”

“I have gay participants in my synagogue, and I embrace them the same way as everybody else,” he said. “It’s not for us to judge.”

Glickman also questioned why churches have held organized campaigns – including paid advertising and gatherings such as the one Sunday – against a “very small percentage of people.”

“Shouldn’t we be focusing on the 60 percent divorce rate?” he asked. “I just can’t wrap my mind around it when there are so many dysfunctional families falling apart.”

Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii, the home organization for hongwanji Buddhist temples in Hawaii, supports same-sex marriage and the bill.

The Rev. Shinkai Murakami of Wailuku Hongwanji Mission said Sunday that he would officiate same-sex weddings if the bill passes. Like heterosexual couples, the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist minister said he would do at least two counseling sessions so that couples understand marriage and what they are getting themselves into and “to be happy in what they are choosing.”

“We respect the people’s wishes. We are going to perform same-gender weddings,” he said.

While some church leaders on Maui have taken a stance in support of same-sex marriages, Marocco has remained steadfastly opposed, calling it a “sexual behavior glorified as a civil rights issue.”

“The Bible makes very clear that sexual behavior should be regulated, and we believe that as well, and so does the state,” he said. “You can’t marry or have sex with somebody under a certain age because it’s statutory rape. . . . We’re not against people, but we are for keeping our society in such a way that family union and marriage will be strong for generations to come.”

Standing next to Marocco, the Rev. Robb Finberg of Grace Church agreed and said “everything in a civilized environment is regulated.”

“We don’t allow prostitution (or) incest; we don’t condone adultery (or) open marriages. Polygamy was voted on in America and voted down,” he said. “We have a standard and this standard is being upheld.”

“Now, there’s some people who don’t like the standard of the Bible and my question to them is ‘If you don’t want the biblical morality, what standard do you want?’ ” he asked. “Outside religious faith, there is no basis of morality. No society ever exists on an arbitrary system of morality, and societies have risen and fallen based on morality.”

The special session is expected to last about a week. Gov. Neil Abercrombie called the session after two U.S. Supreme Court rulings gave gay marriage proponents momentum to push for the laws to be changed in the state.

Hawaii currently recognizes same-sex civil unions that grant many rights similar to marriage but does not label the unions as marriage.

* The Associated Press contributed to this report. Chris Sugidono can be reached at