HONOLULU — The Hawaii state Senate easily passed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in a third reading Wednesday that will advance the legislation to the House. The bills prospects are less certain in the House.
The chamber passed Senate Bill 1 with 20 "aye" votes and four "no" votes after discussing lawmakers' positions. Sen. Glenn Wakai, who supports marriage equality, was absent at the time of the vote because his mother had died.
The Senate quickly advanced the bill Tuesday in a second reading, after the chamber's Committee of Labor and Judiciary spent 12 hours listening to about 400 oral testimonies before passing the bill in a 5-2 vote Monday.
Sen. Clayton Hee, wearing cowboy boots as he often does, said in support of the bill that it allows same-sex couples to marry while protecting religious freedom.
He cited Loving v. Virginia involving interracial marriages and then discussed what was "closer to home," Hawaii's approval of the nation's 1971 law to legalize abortion as evidence of evolving opinions.
Sen. Hee continued with a story about the island of Niihau, home to 130 people, who are mostly native Hawaiians, and their maluhia of the island, a Hawaiian word that translates to peace.
To most of us who understand Hawaiian, the word maluhia means peace, such as in the Christmas song "Silent Night" where the word maluhia is sung over and over again, but to Bruce Robinson and the native people of Niihau maluhia means that everything is right that all things are in order and that no one needs to worry. ... I respectfully and humbly ask you to join me in bringing maluhia to that community that seeks justice. I ask you to expand the meaning of aloha to truly include everyone.
During his opening speech, Sen. Hee was booed and cackled at several times. When there was an interruption in response to Hee's comments on sharing aloha, Senate President Donna Mercado Kim stopped the proceedings to sternly reminded the audience: "You are guests of this chamber and that you must act accordingly."
Sen. Will Espero, a Catholic who voted against civil unions, spoke next in favor of marriage equality. He said he was elected to serve all people regardless of faith and believes the LGBT community deserves dignity. He discussed the divide in opinion within the Christian community on same-sex marriage and how he's been influenced by Pope Francis' change in tone and direction on the matter.
Opponents of the bill had previously expressed concern over school's teaching children about same-sex marriage, and Sen. Clarence Nishihara, a former school administrator, said the Department of Education is careful about controversial issues like marriage equality. Sen. Jill Tokuda, the chair of the Education Committee and a parent, said the bill is about equal rights not schools.
Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom was the first "no" vote. He said there was no reason and no urgency for a "special session related to sexual orientation." He added the issue was not on the same level as previous special sessions, such as those called on Hawaii's Superferry and after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Slom said constituents should vote on same-sex marriage and claimed the only reason a vote is not happening is for fear that the opposition would overwhelmingly vote no, which got him a few cheers from the audience.
Sen. Mike Gabbard, a democrat who opposed the bill, also questioned the importance of the special session and cited a recent Honolulu Civil Beat poll as evidence that the public is still divided on the issue and should be allowed to vote through a constitutional amendment in 2014.
Education was addressed again when Sen. Gabbard said "parents should not have to worry about their children being taught about homosexuality in public schools."
Finally the the full senate voted on the bill with Sen. Gabbard and Slom along with Democrats Donna Mercado Kim and Ron Kouchi voting "no" and all others present voting "aye."
The bill now heads to the House for a joint committee hearing with Judiciary and Finance Thursday, where testimony is expected to last for many hours and may carry over to Friday if there are still people wanting to testify.
The House will likely amend the bill, and then it would have to come back to the Senate for review before being sent to Gov. Abercrombie for his signature.