HONOLULU — How hot a topic is gay marriage in Hawaii?
Here’s one clue: more than 3,000 people have submitted testimony, and more than 1,800 people have signed up to testify, on Senate Bill 1, which would legalize gay marriage and is being heard by state lawmakers this week.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat up for re-election in 2014 with sliding poll numbers, called lawmakers into special session, maintaining gay marriage needs to be legalized now to create “equity.”
Hawaii already has a reciprocal beneficiaries law and a civil unions law, but Abercrombie said a special session affords lawmakers the opportunity “to focus squarely on this important issue, without having to divert attention to the hundreds of other bills introduced during a regular session.”
The governor, who testified on the Senate version of the bill on Monday, already has support among the state Senate, where the bill is expected to easily pass.
In the 51-member House however, the vote should be much closer. After meeting with House Democrats behind closed doors recently, Abercrombie maintains he has 27 votes, or one more than he needs. If the bill passes during the special session, lawmakers say gay marriage ceremonies could be performed as early as mid-November.
The issue has sharply divided the religious and political communities, and some wonder whether spending additional taxpayer dollars on a special session just weeks before the regular session begins in mid-January is really necessary.
House Republicans, with one exception (Rep. Cynthia Thielen) are opposed to the special session and the bill, which would also give same-sex married couples the same benefits as opposite-sex married couples, including parentage rights.
Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom said Hawaii’s high cost of living, underfunded state pension accounts and funding needs for school facilities and transportation should take priority.
The state Senate’s lone Republican said of the more than 1,500 pieces of testimony his office received by Friday most opposed to same-sex marriage.
“In my opinion, this is a waste of time and money for an issue that requires no urgency or special treatment,” Slom said. “This is about politicians looking for votes in the 2014 primary election, but in the process putting their thumb in the eyes of the voters who support them.”
Hawaii GOP Chair David Chang said he’s concerned about the rush by Democrats to get the bill passed without transparency.
“Just a few days ago the final version of the bill came out and was changed greatly from the original version with no public input,” Chang said. “Unfortunately, through the process, the Democrats have shown a lack of transparency and has shown little concern for public input on the actual bill based on the short time available for public comment.”
Bill opponents have raised the issue of a 1998 public vote in which residents voted against same-sex marriage, but also gave the Legislature the power to vote on the issue. Opponents want another public vote.
“With an issue important as this, it is crucial we have the people decide just like the voters did in 1998, not a few legislators, governor, or political party,” Chang said. “This is a community issue and as such the community should be given the opportunity to decide. Our legislators and community leaders should encourage their constituents to be involved in the process.”
“Passing marriage equality is about fulfilling our nation’s promise of equal rights and living up to Hawaii’s values of respect and aloha for all,” Lee said, noting that about 60 percent of constituents from which he’s heard support the measure.
Kathryn Xian, a Democratic candidate for Congress who runs the anti human trafficking group, Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, said marriage equality is not a religious issue, but an equal rights issue.
“Lawmakers must uphold the separation of church and state and honor the equal rights of all citizens, rights afforded to everyone after great historical struggle,” Xian said.
“I myself am gay and I have worked with members of the faith community in our shared fight against human trafficking. It saddens me that some of them ignore the virtue of our past work together to exclude me from the right to marry my partner, with whom I have a civil union.”
Proponents believed Hawaii would be the first state to legalize gay marriage more than a decade ago. However, many church leaders and social conservatives have fought against legalization.
Some lawmakers have received threatening calls and emails from people passionate about the issue. Capitol security is using metal detectors as a precaution.