Honolulu Star-Advertiser: Marriage equality overdue

February 4, 2013

This piece originally appeared in the Star-Advertiser on Sunday February 3rd.

Hawaii’s Supreme Court in 1993 became the first high court of any state to find the refusal to marry a same-sex couple to be discriminatory. Now, two decades later, it’s time for the state to circle back to that position of equanimity with the legalization of same-sex marriage.

When the decision in Baehr v. Miike was issued, state lawmakers moved quickly to foreclose on the claim by legally defining marriage as a compact only for heterosexual couples, a definition ultimately endorsed in a popular vote to amend the state Constitution. The trend backing a more traditional view of marriage was underscored on the federal level with the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act.

To say that public opinion has shifted dramatically on the issue would be an understatement. There have been votes in other states to allow same-sex couples to marry; the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy constraining the military service of gay men and women was finally overturned.

Throughout society, and especially as the millennial generation starts to take its place in the workforce, attitudes on gay rights have incontrovertibly changed. Even the Boy Scouts of America is looking to lift its longstanding ban on gay members and leaders, a policy change that the Hawaii council is expected to consider in the coming days.

The pollsters have been busy, too, and most of the data documents this shift. Last week, Anzalone Liszt Grove Research released its survey of registered Hawaii voters, commissioned by Equality Hawaii Foundation. Following live telephone interviews with a sample of 500, the results showed that 55 percent support legalizing same-sex marriage, including 39 percent who “strongly” favor it.

This position is reflected most strongly among the younger voters: Among those 35 and under, 64 percent were in favor, and 32 percent were opposed.

The results of any poll can be questioned, this one because it was commissioned by a group backing marriage equality that hired a firm known for its Democratic Party polling.

But that critique is immaterial. The state’s marriage policy should not depend on any polling. This is a question of civil rights, not the outcome of a popular vote.

Hawaii took an important step forward when, two years ago last week, Senate Bill 232 was signed into law, authorizing same-sex civil unions, giving gay and lesbian couples access to state rights and protections equivalent to those of marriage.

While that brought more legal clarity and fairness to these couples and greater security to their families, many make a strong argument why marriage equality remains their goal.

An assessment of the situation would show that, as long as DOMA remains the federal law, same-sex couples won’t have access to federal marriage protections, whether their partnership at the state level is formalized as a marriage or civil union.

Advocates for marriage equality have posted the website Why Marriage Matters (whymarriagematters .org), asserting: “Marriage says ‘We are family’ in a way that no other word does.”

It is a legal status that has a long-established level of respect unequalled by any other convention of society. There really is no reason why that status should be denied to two consenting adults who want to make the commitment.

This legislative session, two bills have been introduced to enable marriage equality in Hawaii. One, House Bill 1005, would put a constitutional amendment before voters that would delete the 1998 amendment that empowered the Legislature to define marriage as between one man and one woman. It also would add language that pointedly affirms marriage as “a legally sanctioned union between two people of the opposite or same sex.”

The highest priority should be on passing Senate Bill 1369, which extends access to marriage to same-sex couples and eases the legal transition for couples in a civil union or reciprocal beneficiary relationship who wish to marry.

Even if the Constitution remains as it is, this measure would clear the way to marriage equality in this state. The bill includes protections for religious organizations that find sanctioning gay marriages in conflict with their beliefs.

The issue of fairness to all, regardless of sexual orientation, made its first appearance in a presidential inaugural address a few weeks ago when President Barack Obama stated that “our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.

“For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” he said.

That basic truth is what Hawaii lawmakers — and the voters, should a constitutional amendment come before them — should keep foremost in mind. For the benefit of island families, the law of the Aloha State should give equal recognition to the unions of all couples who embrace that legal commitment. Discrimination should have no place here.