HONOLULU - Two state House committees sent a bill that would legalize gay marriage to the full chamber Tuesday night, ending a five-day public hearing that exposed deep divisions in Hawaii on an issue being considered across the United States.
Members of the House Judiciary and Finance committees voted for the bill after hearing more than 55 hours of public testimony, leading to alterations in the measure.
The committees made three amendments. One strengthens provisions that exempt clergy and organizations from having to perform gay marriage ceremonies, modeled after a similar law in Connecticut. Another deletes language that governed how children of gay couples could establish Native Hawaiian parentage to qualify for state benefits. A third moves the date that ceremonies can begin to Dec. 2.
Lawmakers vote to advance a gay marriage bill at a House joint committee hearing at the Hawaii Capitol in Honolulu on Tuesday.
The full House is expected to consider the bill in a second reading this morning, with the possibility of fully passing the bill Friday, House spokeswoman Carolyn Tanaka said.
The amendments mean the measure will have to be approved again by the state Senate, which passed the original bill last week.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who called the special session and would be asked to sign the bill, said in a joint statement with Attorney General David Louie that the bill and its amendments are sound and should be passed by the Legislature. The executives said the amendments balance the concerns raised during the hearings.
The committee votes came after lawmakers wrapped up taking comments Tuesday afternoon from speakers given two minutes each to make their case.
"I think it's probably the longest hearing ever in the history of Hawaii," said Rep. Karl Rhoads, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, thanking staffers and members of the public for sticking around for a hearing that began on Halloween.
Before voting, lawmakers took turns to explain their thoughts on the bill and the process in short speeches that were at times emotional, personal and unmistakably political.
"Marriage needs help," said Rep. Kaniela Ing, who represents South Maui, reflecting on his childhood and urging churches to change their views on people who are gay.
Rep. Mele Carroll said she supports equal rights for same-sex couples but is upset because people feel betrayed by their government because of the special session being used to hear the bill.
"I'm sad because of the process," said a teary-eyed Carroll, who voted against the bill and said there hasn't been enough time to discuss the issue. Carroll represents East Maui, Lanai and Molokai.
Rep. Justin Woodson, who represents Kahului, said in a news release, "I feel that an ideal solution would maintain the current definition of marriage, while affording the same federal rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities of married couples to those with civil unions."
Rep. Gene Ward, a Republican who represents Hawaii Kai on Oahu and is against the bill, said on the House floor Tuesday night that he planned to offer two amendments to broaden religious exemptions and exempt teachers from having to change classroom instruction because of the law.
Lawmakers initially planned to vote on the bill in second reading Tuesday night, but Rhoads said changes to the bill and a desire to let staff sleep led lawmakers to push the second reading to the next day.