A majority of Maui's state senators and representatives said Monday that they are in favor of a special legislative session to take up gay marriage.
Their endorsement follows reports from House and Senate leaders saying they do not have the two-thirds' majority vote required under the Hawaii Constitution to call themselves back into session. Lawmakers are looking to Gov. Neil Abercrombie to make the decision and draft a bill, which would give equal federal rights to same-sex couples who want to marry.
"When we passed civil unions in 2011, we had to make changes because there were some gaps in the law," said state Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, who represents Central Maui, in a phone interview Monday. "I think that's what the Governor's Office is doing right now and will cover the same types of issues.
"From my understanding, the House doesn't have the two-thirds' vote and it's unlikely to call itself back," he said.
The news comes after a June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court ruled unconstitutional a section of the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that allowed states to refuse to recognize a same-sex marriage granted by other states.
Under state law, Hawaii provides equal rights for gay couples in civil unions, but federal law does not. The federal government recognizes more than 1,100 rights and protections in marriage including Social Security benefits, veteran benefits and health insurance, according to the United States Government Accountability Office.
West and South Maui state Sen. Roz Baker said that she hopes Abercrombie can produce a bill that "everybody can agree on."
"We've already passed civil unions, but those are disadvantaged because they don't have access to the federal marriage benefits," she said. This is "an issue, quite frankly, that the Legislature has made the decisions on. . . . This is the next logical step."
Baker introduced a same-sex marriage bill before the Supreme Court's ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act. She said that she would like to see the bill "expedited" and voted on in a special session, rather than it being pushed into the next lawmaking session in mid January.
"I think (Gov. Abercrombie) should call it as soon as the bill is in shape," she said. "I think it's the right thing to do and is a matter of equal rights."
Abercrombie is reportedly leaning toward calling the special session, but is waiting for a clear majority from the House.
House Speaker Joe Souki, who represents Wailuku, said "it might be a little premature" for the governor to publicly call for a special session. The House has "still not taken a formal position," he said.
"We believe we have the votes, but they need to be firmed up," Souki said. "On Wednesday, we'll have a leadership meeting to go over issues, including marriage equality . . . followed by a caucus to see if we have a majority."
Souki, who previously voted against civil unions, said that he has not taken a position on gay marriage yet, and is "looking at where the majority is going."
State Sen. J. Kalani English, who represents East Maui, Upcountry, Molokai and Lanai, said that he supports gay marriage and would like to resolve the issue as soon as possible.
Abercrombie "should pick a date and do it quickly, so we can vote on a bill," English said. "It's justice for all, and that's what the U.S. Constitution states and the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled on."
Although Keith-Agaran acknowledged that holding the separate meeting would take "one hot-button issue off the table," he cautioned that the timeliness of Abercrombie's bill is not as important as "whether the language is available."
"I think the worst thing would be calling a special session without any language," he said. "You don't want to have sit down and work on a bill and have the entire Legislature waiting around for language to be established.
"If that's the case, we might as well wait until January."
When the bill is introduced, it will need to go through three readings on the floors of the House and Senate, with amendments after each reading by lawmaking bodies, he said.
Freshman Rep. Kaniela Ing, who represents South Maui, said that he supports gay marriage but would like the bill to be voted on in a special session instead of carrying it into regular session and putting "huge issues" such as retirement and minimum wage on the "back burner."
The 24-year-old said that he remembers not being old enough to vote on the 1998 state constitutional amendment that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.
"I think a huge part of Hawaii didn't get to voice their opinions," he said. "Now they have the chance, and it's a different world than what it was back then. I think people of my generation think marriage equality is common sense.
"It's simple - everybody is equal in Hawaii," he said.
Meanwhile, on Monday, more than two dozen Hawaii leaders of various religions signed a resolution calling on the state to pass a law legalizing gay marriage. The interfaith group was made up of Jewish, Unitarian, Methodist and leaders of other religions.
The group did not include leaders from religious groups that have opposed gay marriage in the past. The Hawaii Family Forum, which represents Christian churches of various denominations, as well as the Hawaii Catholic Conference, submitted testimony earlier this year against a bill that would have created a task force to study the social and economic impacts of gay marriage in Hawaii.
* The Associated Press contributed to this report. Chris Sugidono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.