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Thousands testify at House hearing on same-sex marriage

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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

 

More than 13 hours after House Representatives first sat down for public testimony on the same-sex marriage bill -- they're still going, and with no end in sight. 

Nearly 5,000 people have signed up to testify on SB 1, the "Hawaii Marriage Equality Act of 2013".  It's unclear how many people actually addressed lawmakers because around 9 p.m. Thursday the hearing started moving along quickly as legislators called upon numbers and no people stepped up. 

Hours before the hearing even began, the line to testify was already wrapping around the auditorium.  At 9 a.m, more than 15,000 pages of written testimony were submitted and House officials say it continues to pour in.  

Hopeful and at times heated is how several lawmakers described Thursday's testimony. 

"I hope that they take into consideration both sides, but that they vote with their heart and do the right thing and be on the right side of history -- it's time and I just hope that they'll listen with an open heart," said Nick Lacarra, who supports same-sex marriage.

"I feel that this bill is going to open this up for marriage to be defined as something that I do not believe that it is and so I'm here for my future children and also for the future of Hawai'i," said Charis Logan, who opposes same-sex marriage.

We're very good people. We're citizens and we contribute to the country and the state. My partner is a social worker and I'm a state government worker -- we're good people, so we should be allowed to have this just as others do," said Jocelyn Deguia, explaining her support for same-sex marriage.

"This is about the preservation of family, morality of our community, and the protection of religious beliefs -- what about the First Amendment rights of us?" asked Strider Didymus, who opposes same-sex marriage. 

Much of the testimony has focused on whether the bill's exemptions, one of which allows clergy to refuse to perform a wedding on the basis of their religious beliefs without fine or penalty, are adequate enough to protect First Amendment rights. 

"What would the chilling effect be if this bill were to pass as is on religious practices as well religious thought?" asked Representative Sharon Har, House Judiciary committee Vice Chair. 

"All it protects is a minister's desire not to say the following words, which constitute the solemnization of a marriage, 'by the power invested in me by the state of Hawai'i, I now pronounce you man and wife'.  That's it.  That is the complete scope of the religious exemption.  Every other part of a wedding ceremony, every other part of a wedding service, celebration, anniversary, baptism of children -- all of that stuff is not exempt," responded Jim Hochberg, president of Hawai'i Family Advocates.

Yet, others say their First Amendment rights have already been taken away and SB 1 would restore them. 

"Do you feel like your religious freedom is being infringed by the current law prohibiting you from marrying same-sex couples, in accordance with your religious beliefs that you cited in your testimony?" asked Representative Chris Lee, House Judiciary committee member. 

"Yes, I would like to have the opportunity, as many here today are also sharing, to be able to perform same gender marriages," answered Bishop Eric Matsumoto of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission.

State Attorney General David Louie says he believes SB 1 strikes a balance that protects religious freedom, while also providing equal treatment to everyone who lives and loves in Hawai'i by granting them all the federal benefits and protections heterosexual couples currently get. 

"I respect that people have differing views and they feel that they are under attack, but I don't look at this as being an attack on heterosexual couples or any diminishment for them or religious organizations-- I look upon it as giving equality to same-sex couples," explained Louie. 

Representative Sharon Har says she's worried the religious exemptions aren't clear or expansive enough. 

"Something that not a lot of people have talked about is the rights of the conscience -- the rights to believe to believe what you want to believe -- those are protected under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and so at this point it's clear that's not expressly stated in the bill and therefore many people have grave concerns going forward," said Har, who says she would not vote for SB 1 as it is written now. 

Attorney General Louie says he worries broadening the religious exemption to include businesses and individuals with objections based on their faith would further discrimination, when he says the purpose of SB 1 is to provide equal protection. 

"I hold my business open to the public, but I don't think I want to have black people, gay people, same-sex couples, old people come into my establishment -- that's really contrary to the aloha spirit.  It's contrary to the public policy that we have in our public accommodations law and I don't think it's appropriate," said Louie. 

Opponents of SB 1 have challenged the fairness of allowing 76 legislatures to decide on something so divisive and question whether lawmakers are truly listening to the will of the people. 

"A situation of this great magnitude shouldn't be left up to just a handful of people especially because it's not going to just affect the people of today its going to affect our children, future generations from this point on and once this does go through -- if it does go through -- it can never be reversed," said Rachel Rivers.

But those who support SB 1 say they are looking ahead and also into the past -- calling same-sex marriage a basic right that historically has only been afforded by a legislative body or through judicial action 

"Whether it was passing interracial marriage, passing the right to vote for women, passing civil rights, or ending slavery -- all of these were not subject to a public vote because the public would not have voted for them at the time.  Yet in retrospect, it was the right thing to do based on our constitution and the protections it guarantees every American," explained Lee, who has been a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage. 

Members of the public weren't first called to testify until around 1 p.m. Thursday.  House Representatives from the Judiciary and Finance committees spent more than two hours grilling State Attorney General Louie and the Governor's Deputy Chief of Staff, Blake Oshiro.

Lawmakers say these hearings provide an important opportunity for the public to be heard, but they are also a critical chance for the legislators themselves to ask questions of officials. 

Representatives went back and forth with several experts today on issues of religious exemptions -- especially what defines "for profit" under public accommodations, and the potential impact a same-sex marriage bill could have on classroom curriculum 

"You're going to have to show these alternative lifestyles.  They keep saying there's a policy for controversial issues -- that's their fall back, but if it's the law of the land it's no longer controversial.  So today their answer is true, but next week if we pass this it won't be," explained Representative Bob McDermott, expressing his frustration that many of his questions were never specifically answered.  McDermott plans to vote no on same-sex marriage. 

"They did some tremendous work on SB 1, but part of the legislative process is to vet the bill.  We're actually working with some people to take a look at the current language and still allow the freedoms for people that marry, but to strengthen the freedoms on the religious aspect as far as churches and protecting their facilities," described Representative Derek Kawakami, explaining how lawmakers are taking into consideration what they've been hearing from their constituents in the last few weeks and what they've heard in testimony Thursday. 

Thursday's public hearing fell on Halloween and Representative Richard Fale helped organize a trick-or-treating event in support of traditional marriage for the kids who were at the Capitol to wait on their parents' testimony.  Many of them lined up along Beretainia Street waving signs to "Let the people decide". 

House Judiciary committee Chair Representative Karl Rhoads allowed testifiers to sign up until midnight. Each was given two minutes to address legislators.  House officials say they should have an estimate on how many people testified on Friday, November 1. Hawaii News Now has also asked for a breakdown based on the percentage who testified in opposition and who testified in support of SB 1.  Based on the testimony Hawaii News Now was present for throughout Thursday, the majority of those who spoke stood in opposition to SB 1 -- though many raised issue specifically with the special session. 

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