POLITICS
11/01/2013 01:19 pm ET Updated Nov 01, 2013

Hawaii Republicans Have Strange Questions Regarding Same-Sex Marriage Bill

An indication of just how long a joint committee of House lawmakers would be listening to testimony on same-sex marriage legislation came about two hours into Thursday's hearing.

Karl Rhoads, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, reminded his colleagues and the audience that they had only heard from two testifiers. Behind them waited thousands more, each allotted two minutes to speak out on Senate Bill 1.

People signed up until the midnight deadline to get on the list to testify. There were 5,181 people registered by the end of the day, but the committee members had heard from fewer than one-fifth before they decided to recess after 14 hours of testimony. The hearing is set to resume at 8:30 a.m. Friday.

With so many people left to testify, it was unclear when the House would end up voting on the bill. An amendment related to religious exemptions is expected, but it could easily be late next week before any decision-making happens if all the people signed up to testify actually do so.

Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said after the hearing ended around 12:30 a.m. that the plan is to "plow ahead" in the morning and then gauge where things stand later Friday.

There's no doubt about the tremendous interest in the outcome of SB 1. By 10 a.m. Thursday, more than 15,000 pieces of written and online testimony had been submitted.

It's no surprise that the first two testifiers received so many questions from House members. They were Attorney General David Louie and Gov. Neil Abercrombie's deputy chief of staff, Blake Oshiro. Oshiro is also a former House majority leader and the architect of Hawaii's civil unions law.

Unlike the Senate, which easily approved SB 1 Wednesday, House reps are not united on marriage equity. But the second trend of the day — after it became apparent just how long a day it would be — soon became clear, too.

Many of the most pointed, if sometimes strange questions, came from opponents of SB 1. They include Republican Reps. Bob McDermott and Gene Ward, and Democrat Rep. Sharon Har. Another Democrat who is on the fence, Rep. Jo Jordan, also had numerous questions for Louie and Oshiro, as did Rep. Marcus Oshiro, who is not on Finance or Judiciary but was allowed to participate in the hearing anyway.

Oshiro is the former Finance chairman who lost his job when Calvin Say was ousted from the speakership in January. To many Capitol observers, the debate over gay marriage has created an undercurrent of turmoil in the House that has included attempts to reorganize House leadership.

See Dick Run

McDermott was obsessed with trying to figure out whether public schools would be required — should SB 1 become "the law of the land" — to provide textbooks that illustrated as normal the lives of homosexuals. He used the example of the "See Dick and Jane" books, inferring that the Department of Education would introduce books featuring two married men or two married women.

Oshiro and Louie both said that the DOE has "opt-out" policies for the teaching of controversial materials, but that did not satisfy McDermott. That introduced a third trend of the day: Rhoads interrupting his colleagues to let others talk to move things along.

Louie repeated many of the things he told the Senate on Monday: that the Legislature had the power to pass same-sex marriage, that a constitutional amendment question on the matter was unnecessary, that significant federal benefits are denied to gay couples in the islands (they include Social Security survivor benefits), that the religious exemption in SB 1 is sound and that legislators have the chance to make history.

Even supporters of same-sex marriage, like Rep. Tom Brower, had questions for Louie that seemed beyond the scope of SB 1. Brower wanted to know if legalizing gay marriage would lead to the marriage of multiple partners; he said "half the world" practices group marriage.

Louie answered "no," SB 1 would not lead to group marriage, pointing out that polygamy is outlawed in most states.
"I sense there is no groundswell for that, other than in Utah," he said, garnering chuckles from many in the Capitol Auditorium.

Jordan had questions about whether common law marriages, which are not legal in Hawaii, would be recognized should SB 1 pass. Another Democratic rep, Mele Carroll, was concerned about Native Hawaiian entitlements should children of gay couples be conceived through artificial insemination — another issue beyond the scope of SB 1. And Marcus Oshiro wanted to know whether Louie interpreted the Hawaii Constitution the same as he did.

Louie apologized to Oshiro that he did not have a copy of the Constitution on him. At that point, Rhoads piped up and asked Oshiro whether he actually had a question for Louie germane to SB 1, and if not, could he speak with Louie about the Constitution at another time.

Several House members indicated that they want to amend SB 1 to expand religious exemptions, perhaps drawing from Connecticut's same-sex marriage law, which is said to allow more flexibility for churches. Louie said that SB 1 was crafted in such a way as to not violate the state's public accommodations law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

As he did in his Senate testimony, Bill Hoshijo, executive director of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, suggested language to clarify the scope of the exemptions.

God Versus Gays Redux

By 3 p.m. or so, five hours after the hearing began, testifier No. 500 had been called. But that's not to say 500 people had testified by that point. The numbers jumped from 100 to 500 because 101 to 499 had been reserved for people testifying on behalf of groups or organizations.

But from that time on, the testimony was coming from the general public, and it generally fell into the same two camps as Senate testifiers.

On one side were representatives of Hawaii Family Forum who said a constitutional amendment was the way to go. ("Let the people decide" is their mantra.) Pastor Allen Cardines of Hope Chapel Nanakuli asked why it was necessary to rush into same-sex marriage. And Walter Yoshimitsu of the Hawaii Catholic Conference said marriage is "by definition" between a man and a woman.

On the other side were representatives of Equality Hawaii who called SB 1 "our generation's defining civil rights" issue. Dante Carpenter, chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, agreed and said his party stood firm on the matter. And Kathryn Xian, a candidate for Congress, said, "I'm Christian and in a civil union. The Christian community is divided on what is gospel."

Outside the auditorium, the scene was significantly more subdued than Monday, when thousands of people rallied for and against gay marriage.

A small group lined Beretania Street Thursday afternoon, waving signs supporting a proposed constitutional amendment as someone on a megaphone chanted “Let the people vote!” In the morning, it was a group of supporters who occupied the space, telling passers-by that it was past time for "marriage equality" in Hawaii.

A dozen or so people wearing rainbow-colored lei were watching people testify on a TV that was set up in the rotunda to accommodate the overflow crowd. Gathered around another TV was a small group made up mostly of opponents of same-sex marriage.

As the hours wore on, a few people arrived in the auditorium wearing their Halloween costumes. Despite observable fatigue setting in, a steady drum of testifiers took their two-minute turn at the mic. The last couple hours of testimony was overwhelmingly against the bill.

Around midnight, Rhoads announced that he and Luke had decided the committees were going to push through and continue taking testimony.

But Ward wouldn't have it. He stood up, waving a news release that said they would recess until the following day if there was still a line of people waiting to testify at midnight. There was. A couple hundred people were waiting in the Capitol halls for their turn.

Ward said he and the others who were "half brain dead" would like to get some rest and return in the morning before making any kind of decision on the bill.

A brief recess followed before Rhoads and Luke returned to say that the hearing would resume at 8:30 a.m. Rhoads made it clear that anyone who was not signed up by midnight would not be eligible to testify. He and Luke also said they stood by the decision to allow two minutes of testimony per person even though the Senate limited each person to one minute.

The House Judiciary and Finance committees each have the votes to pass SB 1. The question is if and how it will be amended, and if and how the Senate will accept the amendments.

When that will happen, meanwhile, all depends on how soon the House completes its marathon committee hearing of same-sex marriage legislation.

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