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Hawaii lawmakers begin gay marriage special session

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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

The Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee voted to pass a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Hawaii. The vote came after nearly 12 hours of testimony from the public, as more than 400 people addressed lawmakers during Monday's public hearing before the Senate committee.  In addition, Senate clerks say more than 4,000 pages of written testimony were also filed.  Senators Mike Gabbard and Sam Slom were the only two to vote no on the measure.  Senators Malama Solomon, Brickwood Galuteria, Les Ihara -- along with Chair Clayton Hee and Vice Chair Maile Shimabukuro -- all voted yes. 

Senate Bill (SB) 1, Relating to Equal Rights, recognizes marriages between individuals of the same gender. In addition, the measure extends to same-sex couples the same rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities of marriage that opposite-sex couples are presently entitled to.

"This measure represents the Committee's best effort to balance the interests of supporters and opponents of this issue," said Senator Clayton Hee, Chair of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor. "The Senate's bill preserves religious freedoms and ensures that the rights of all Americans are preserved as enshrined in the United States and Hawaii Constitutions."

The decision marked the end to a day that began at 10 a.m. when Senators convened in chambers for the first reading of SB1, the "Hawaii Marriage Equality Act of 2013", and immediately referred it to the Judiciary and Labor committee. 

Governor Neil Abercrombie started off testimony by commending Senate leadership for drafting a proposal he described as striking a balance between equal rights with protections for religious freedom. 

"Our whole focus has been on trying to accommodate the First Amendment here with respect to people's religious rights and that's been done in good faith," the Governor said. 
 
Each person was given a maximum of two minutes to testify -- and that proved to be a challenge from the beginning, as most tried to speak longer and almost all had to be reminded by Senator Hee that it was time to wrap up. 

Eager advocates and opponents lined up as early as 7 a.m. for their chance to testify. 

"I believe we should kill this bill SB 1 and offer the people of Hawaii an opportunity to vote," one person testified. 

"I humbly, humbly ask you to stand up for marriage equality today," another said. 

"A bill like this that goes to the roots of the people, it's something that violates much of their heart and souls," said a local pastor. 

"I'm a Christian and for that reason specifically I support this bill," explained another testifier. 

State officials also testified this morning-- including Loretta Fuddy, the Director of the Department of Health, who says the agency is ready to go if the bill passes. 

State Attorney General David Louie spent a considerable amount of time answering questions about state and federal benefits.  According to Louie -- under Hawaii's civil unions law, same-sex couples are currently being afforded equal state benefits as heterosexual couples, but not federal benefits.  Senators asked for clarification on whether same-sex couples from Hawaii who marry in one of the 14 states where marriage is legal will be afforded those federal benefits if they return to live in Hawaii.  Louie testified he can only say with certainty that federal tax benefits will apply to same-sex couples who are married elsewhere and return to Hawaii, but says it's unclear whether other federal benefits such as Medicaid, Social Security and the Family & Medical Leave Act will also apply. 

"Those are the kinds of questions that need to be answered and addressed, and of course the concern is even if that was true the barrier of having to travel -- not everyone can afford to travel," said Senator Maile Shimabukuro.  

Louie went on to say the best way to ensure Hawaii residents aren't discriminated against is to pass SB1, the "Hawaii Marriage Equality Act of 2013". 

"I believe this is a necessary step," Louie concluded. 

Later, lawmakers were informed that only three federal benefits would be recognized for same-sex couples who marry elsewhere and return to Hawaii to live.

Sen. Shimabukuro says the discussion today was critical for a better understanding of what's at stake if lawmakers do or don't pass the same-sex marriage bill. 

"The HSTA testified in strong support of the measure, I thought that was very interesting to see-- but then there was a teacher from Canada that came and talked about their experiences there where they have legalized same sex marriage and how it's effected the education system.  He didn't have a position, but he just talked about how it's really changed their education system, so there's a very thought-provoking debate happening today and I really appreciate all the people that have come to share their mana'o on this very sensitive topic," Shimabukuro said. 

Senator Sam Slom still believes a special session is not appropriate, and says the issue has evolved from a civil rights concern to a question of benefits. 

"I asked Attorney General Louie -- does the Congress have the power to change the laws and change these benefits?  And the answer is yes.  We talked about this with reciprocal beneficiaries under civil unions.  If there's an area that needs changing, if something has been overlooked -- then let's adopt and change that.  Let's pinpoint where the problems are.  The problem is not having same-sex marriage overall, you see how divided the testimony is.  You see how divided the community is," Sen. Slom said. 

Kimberly Allen says the federal benefits in question are crucial.

"I lost my wife in 2010 to cancer and there were many difficulties we went through, not only because she had cancer, but also because we were not afforded the same protections that legally married couples are afforded, such as family medical leave," explained Allen, who teared up talking about her struggle to obtain some of her late wife's ashes. 

Advocates say marriage is a civil right gay couples are being denied. 

"I'm not looking for acceptance what I'm looking for is equality under the United States Constitution that everyone is treated equal. People need to be treated with dignity and respect," said Kaleo Gagne. 

Some opponents say the people, not legislators, should decide whether to legalize same-sex marriage.

"We appreciate our legislative process, but this particular event is a violation of our democracy.  It's a violation of our Hawaiian way of laws and giving hearings properly for all committees.  This should be waiting until the regular session," said former state legislator, Cam Cavasso.

Others say the bill violates their First Amendment freedom of religion. 

"If a church makes a profit, there's no religious freedom or even business freedom guaranteed.  You won't be able to refuse a homosexual or gay couple service and that's wrong.  That's oppression by the government," said Joe Spatola.

The bill will now go to the full Senate, which is scheduled to vote on it Wednesday.  From there, it goes to the House, which has planned a joint hearing before the Judiciary and Finance committees for Thursday. 

To review the bill, receive more information about special session, and keep updated about the bill's status, please go to:http://www.capitol.hawaii.gov/splsession.aspx?year=2013b.

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