Wednesday, November 13, 2013

And Lo, the First Shall Be...16th

Hawai'i became the 16th state (plus DC) to legalize the recognition of marriage between same-sex couples. It is somewhat ironic that 15 other states and DC beat Hawaii to the finish line on gay marriage.  In the 1990s many thought Hawai'i would be the frontrunner on expanding marriage to same-sex couples.  In a court case running from 1991 to 1999, a HI judge -using directions from the HI Supreme Court- ruled in 1996 that denying marriage to same-sex couples was unconstitutional.  The HI Supreme Court, however, waited to decide the case until a ballot measure passed a 1998 constitutional amendment specifically giving the legislature the power to regulate same-sex marriage.  The Hawai'i legislature promptly then banned same-sex marriage until it changed its mind this month in a special session. As a result, the HI Supreme Court in 1999 upheld the new constitutional amendment banning marriage.

While Vermont became the first state to legalize civil unions granting most of the benefits of civil marriage to same-sex couples in 2000, Hawai'i did not successfully pass a civil union law until 2011 -after the state's then Governor, Linda Lingle (R), vetoed an earlier civil union bill in 2010.

Adding to the oddness of Hawai'i's approach is the unprecedented deluge of 1000s of individual citizens allowed to speak their opinions about same-sex marriage before the HI House.  Many of these opinions were talking points by opponents that reiterated what other citizens had already said.  On top of this, the first openly gay legislator to vote AGAINST civil rights for LGBT people, Rep. Jo Jordan (D), voted against same-sex marriage. Oddly, she voted for civil unions in 2011 and says she supports same-sex marriage -just not the bill that passed.

So, the excitement of Hawai'i's legal decisions in 1996 took 17 years to finally result in upholding the court opinion that denying marriage to same-sex couples was unconstitutional.  While better late than never as the saying goes, Hawai'i's nearly two decades of foot-dragging makes this week's vote somewhat bittersweet.

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