Hawaii, one of the first states where gay and lesbian couples fought for the right to wed, is poised to become the latest state to grant same-sex marriage after lawmakers on Friday approved legislation amid passionate public debate.
The state House of Representatives passed the bill, 30-19. It heads back to the Senate, which approved an earlier version of the legislation and is expected to re-convene on Tuesday.
Governor Neil Abercrombie has indicated he would swiftly sign the measure into law, making Hawaii the 15th or16th U.S. state to extend marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples, depending on when the governor of Illinois signs a newly-passed same-sex marriage bill there.
The House vote was seen as the key ballot. In a rare move, the House allowed the public to speak during the debate: More than 1,000 people, most opposed to same-sex marriage, spoke over five days, providing 56 hours of testimony in what some referred to as a public or citizen’s “filibuster.”
“We have a red line that’s dividing the community,” said Rep. Richard Lee Fale, a Republican who urged the legislature to let the issue go before a popular referendum instead. “Let the people vote.”
“This is about equal rights,” countered Republican Rep. Cynthia Thielen. “Let the legislature vote.”
Opponents often chanted outside the Hawaii State Capitol during the House deliberations, which began last week. Most were concerned about religious groups not being forced to solemnize or celebrate same-sex marriages.
“It was a very emotional few days,” said Colin Moore, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Hawaii who attended some of the hearings. “This is a very unusual thing here. This kind of very aggressive political activity, these kinds of very, big public protests happen here. But they’re pretty rare.”
Moore said most of the opposition came from evangelicals and the conservative Catholic communities, who are mostly native Hawaiians and Filipinos.
“Unlike other states, you’re seeing a number of Democrats voting against gay marriage in this case,” he said. “And the real issue really is about these religious exemptions.”
Hawaii’s vote comes days after lawmakers in Illinois voted to approve same-sex marriage. The Aloha state was at the forefront of the gay marriage debate back in the early 1990s, when three same-sex couples sued for the right to wed.
Though the courts sided with the couples, a voter approved amendment to the state constitution in 1998 mandated that only the legislature could decide who gets to marry, thereby nullifying the court case.
The bid by the Hawaii couples to get married also helped lead to passage of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which didn't allow federal recognition of same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court struck down that part of the law barring such recognition in late June, allowing gay couples across the country to receive more than 1,100 federal benefits they'd previously been denied.
A University of Hawaii professor has estimated that same-sex marriages could bring in another $271 million to the state over a three-year period starting in 2014.
Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage. Thirty-three states, excluding Hawaii, prohibit same-sex marriage. Many of those state bans also face legal challenges, with nearly 30 lawsuits filed across the country after two Supreme Court decisions in the summer that favored gay marriage rights.