The state Senate's passage of the same-sex marriage bill Tuesday draws to a close what some lawmakers called the most contentious and the most debated issue to rock the state Capitol in decades.
"This is the most contentious issue that I've seen in the 30 years I've been in the Legislature," House Speaker Joe Souki of Maui said after Senate Bill 1, which would allow same-sex couples the same rights as any other couple, passed the state Senate in a 19-4 vote, with two senators excused, Tuesday afternoon.
The bill is now headed for the governor's desk, where it is expected to be signed this morning. With Gov. Neil Abercrombie's signature, Hawaii is poised to become the 15th state to legalize same-sex marriage.
"I believe understanding will come in time. Right now, there's hurt because you're changing the paradigm of marriage; people were brought up with 'man and woman' and suddenly it's changing. I hope they (opponents to the bill) understand that the traditional way of marriage will not be taken away. The church will still have the same protections they've had in the past, in fact, maybe a little more," Souki said.
The House amended the bill to provide religious exemptions that protect First Amendment rights to freedom of religion by not requiring any church or clergy to solemnize a same-sex marriage.
Souki, who represents Waihee, Wailuku and Kahului, added that Hawaii has honored civil unions - which grant same-sex couples state-recognized benefits - since 2011, and "there hasn't really been a ripple" in the community. SB1 would simply extend the rights of same-sex couples to include federal benefits, Souki said.
"This is not going to upset the whole culture of Hawaii, it's simply allowing loving people to get married," Souki said.
State Sens. Gil Keith-Agaran, who represents Central Maui, and J. Kalani English, East Maui, Upcountry, Molokai and Lanai, who both voted in favor of the bill alongside state Sen. Roz Baker, West and South Maui, said Tuesday afternoon that they were satisfied with the outcome.
"It feels very good to have passed SB1. Aloha wins, right?" English said. "The whole point is equality for all, and I think we've expanded civil rights in Hawaii to include a lot more people and to create stable, happy families. I think this is a great day for Hawaii."
English called the same-sex marriage bill "the most scrutinized bill that's ever gone through the Legislature."
"In regular session, we have 4,000 bills in the House and 4,000 in the Senate, and 60 legislative days. In this (special) session, we had two and a half weeks to work on one bill. Really, it was the most scrutinized, most debated and the most analyzed bill we've ever had," English said.
Last week, more than 5,000 people signed up to testify before the state House, culminating in an unprecedented 55 hours of public testimony over the course of five days. Hundreds of people rallied and protested outside the state Capitol building as lawmakers convened.
"This was such an emotional issue that people feel very personally about on both sides," state Rep. Angus McKelvey, who represents West Maui, said. "I try to look at things pragmatically and analyze the issue from all sides and find a balance. That's why we put in these very strong exemptions.
. . . Neither side got everything."
One of the most noted exemptions is one that would allow for-profit entities - churches who conduct marriages commercially - to turn away same-sex couples looking to wed, McKelvey said.
"The irony is that in order to give the churches the exemptions from same-sex marriage, we had to pass the same-sex marriage bill," McKelvey said. "The courts were almost certainly going to issue a ruling that would allow same-sex marriage in Hawaii. They adjudicate rights, but only legislators can legislate exemptions."
He cited the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage in June, as well as New Jersey Supreme Court's ruling last month that allowed same-sex marriages to resume in the state.
McKelvey said that he hopes lawmakers and the community can move forward and continue to work and live together.
"During the recesses, I was talking with my friends and colleagues who didn't agree with me on this issue, like Justin Woodson. Even though he and I didn't come to the same decision on one issue, we can still work together and be friends. That's what I'm hoping for in the community."
Woodson, who represents Kahului, voted against SB1 last week, along with state Rep. Mele Carroll, East Maui, Molokai and Lanai. The bill still advanced to the state Senate after Friday's 30-19 vote.
"I feel the bill was divisive in that one side won and one side lost," Woodson said Tuesday. "That's unfortunate because I would've liked to see a legislative proposal that would afford equal federal rights (to same-sex couples) while maintaining the current definition of marriage. That would've been a win-win situation."
He affirmed other lawmakers' impressions that it was "very emotional, extremely tense at all times" over the last two weeks. His office received several thousand emails and hundreds more letters and phone calls.
"I was walking in the community and people would bring it up to me. It was on people's minds and the feeling that I got was the (Kahului) community was not for it," Woodson said.
A number of Christian groups on Maui have voiced opposition to the bill since the special session was called by the governor.
"My fear is that SB1 puts churches and Christians into the position where they will have to fight this in court or just buckle under whatever has happened," Valley Isle Fellowship Pastor Steve Kaneshiro, an opponent of same-sex marriage, said. "This is a moral issue, not a civil rights issue. If this is a civil rights issue, where does civil rights end? Where do we draw the line? Should people be allowed to marry more than one person? What about the age consent with adults marrying children?"
Kaneshiro, who was an avid proponent of the 1998 constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman, said he was not satisfied with the religious exemptions attached to the bill, saying "our biblical understanding is not just a church as a building, but the people themselves and how they live in the community."
Because the same-sex debates have caused such a rift in the community, Kaneshiro said he was concerned about "where do we go from here."
"I know there's a lot of bitterness and even hatred that seems to have flowed both ways, somehow we're going to have to really try to come to a more loving approach to each other. I keep hearing that this may have risen a sleeping giant. I don't know if that's true or not, but I don't think that by the passage of this bill, that this is the end."
Bob Kincaid, president of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group Maui Pride, said that he was looking forward to marrying his longtime partner "as soon as possible" after the bill goes into effect.
"It's not a religious thing, it's a right. That's how we look at it," Kincaid said. "To me, it's up to the state to issue the marriage licenses. If the church doesn't want to marry people, that's up to the church."
The Kihei resident said he had watched the public testimonials at the Capitol online, an experience he describes as "one of the most painful things I've gone through in my life."
The image that stood out in his mind was one of kids as young as 10 years old, reading typed statements opposing same-sex marriage.
"It was just sad. We're teaching our kids hate when we should be teaching them love and compassion," Kincaid said.
In addition to expanding civil rights in Hawaii, the passage of the same-sex marriage bill also would bring significant tourism dollars, said Kincaid, who manages the Maui Sunseeker LGBT Resort. He said same-sex couples have already started calling the resort to book reservations in anticipation of a wedding ceremony.
"If you love someone, you know you love them and it shouldn't matter if they're the same gender or not," Kincaid said.
With the governor's signature, same-sex couples will be allowed to marry in Hawaii beginning Dec. 2.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.