Hawaii governor expects gay marriage bill to pass 'within week'

Gov. Neil Abercrombie says there's 'no justification' for a delay in granting gays the right to marry in the state

Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie reads a quote from the Dalai Lama as he gives testimony in support of same sex marriage during a Senate hearing at the Hawaii State Capital in Honolulu, Monday.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie told Al Jazeera Monday that he expects Hawaii's legislature will pass a bill legalizing gay marriage "within a week or so," in a state that just two decades ago prompted an international dialogue on marriage equality.

The Democrat was interviewed after a special session of his state legislature in Honolulu, which he called to debate the passage of state Senate Bill 1.

The state's House of Representatives plans to pass the bill Thursday, if it successfully passes through the Senate, Reuters reported. Democrats make up the majority in both chambers. 

"The bill primarily is in response to the recent Supreme Court decisions and legal action that was taken in our state with regard to equality issues that we think the bill will resolve," Abercrombie said.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had restricted marriage to heterosexual couples. The ruling resulted in the federal recognition of gay marriages in states where it is legal. President Barack Obama advised federal agencies to review their policies in accordance with the judiciary's ruling, effectively opening immigration rights, for example, to the foreign spouses of gay U.S. nationals.

Abercrombie said that, at the latest, he hopes the bill will be passed before January, so that married gay couples can enjoy benefits including but "not exclusive to taxes ... If it's a question of people being able to have equality with regard to rights and benefits and so on, there is no justification for delaying them the capacity to exercise those rights and gain those benefits."

About 1,800 people applied to testify at the Senate Committee Hearing Monday, according to The Associated Press, but Abercrombie feels that over the past two decades, most Hawaiians have said their piece.

"As I indicated in my brief testimony today, everything that can be said has been said. Maybe not everyone has said it, but the likelihood of getting new information or perspectives at this stage is slim," he said.

"I expect that while there may be extensive testimony, it will reflect the discussion that's been going on for 20 years in this state."

Hawaii Family Advocates, which organized a demonstration against the bill on the Hawaii State Capitol Rotunda Monday, did not respond to Al Jazeera's interview request.

'Two decades too long'

In a study published this month by the Pew Research Center, 54 percent of people in Pacific Coast states, including Hawaii, California, Alaska, Oregon and Washington supported gay marriage.

In 1993, Hawaii opened debate on same-sex marriage when the state's Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to deny marriage to same-sex couples. Still, the case did not legalize gay marriage, and it wasn't until 2011 that civil unions were legalized in the state.

The Hawaii court case — Baehr v. Miike — prompted social conservatives in state legislatures across the country to pass bills barring gay marriage, and DOMA was also subsequently passed through the U.S. Congress.  

"When the Supreme Court of Hawaii came down with its ruling, there was a shockwave that went across the state and the world," Don Bentz, executive director of gay rights advocacy group Equality Hawaii, told Al Jazeera. "It gave birth to the defense of marriage concept," Bentz said, "The time wasn't right for Hawaii."  

Still, Bentz is hopeful that the fact that Hawaii essentially started the debate on gay marriage will result in same-sex marriage being legalized there.

"It's time to come back full circle to the time that Hawaii introduced this issue," he said.

The legalization of gay marriage is part of the long history of civil rights movements in the U.S., Gov. Abercrombie said.

"Votes for women, the ending of slavery, civil rights legislation in the wake of (former President John F. Kennedy's) assassination, the emergence of the civil unions concept as an intermediate step: All these social phenomena have transpired over a long period of time," he said.

Still, "for those who felt they were suffering discrimination, two decades is two decades too long," he added.

If Abercrombie's bill is passed, Bentz, who is gay, said he would still need to find a suitable candidate.

"I'm still single. Still shopping," he said, laughing. "When the time comes, I would like to be married."

But more than being able to have his state recognize his prospective partner, Bentz said the bill would help future generations of LGBT Hawaiians.

"I'm almost 60. Growing up, the concept of marriage and having long-term, committed relations was just not fathomable. I'm excited about the message this is sending to gay and lesbian people," Bentz said.

"Their self-esteem issues from them being told they are second-class citizens — they don't have to go through dealing with that."

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