All eyes on the Hawaii state House as gay marriage bill passes smoothly in Senate

Oskar Garcia, AP
Members of the Hawaii Senate convene on the Senate floor of the Hawaii Capitol in Honolulu on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. The senators passed a marriage equality bill, sending the measure to the House. OSKAR GARCIA [ap]

HONOLULU — The fate of gay marriage in Hawaii is in the hands of the state House after smoothly passing in the Senate.

It’s already been a bumpier ride for the legislation in the House.

A joint House committee involving about half the state’s representatives is scheduled for Thursday, with plans to go at least 14 hours with breaks and possibly extending to Friday if enough people want to testify. Officials say about 3,000 people had submitted written testimony by midday Wednesday.

Oskar Garcia, APMembers of the Hawaii Senate convene on the Senate floor of the Hawaii Capitol in Honolulu on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. The senators passed a marriage equality bill, sending the measure to the House.

Oskar Garcia, AP
Members of the Hawaii Senate convene on the Senate floor of the Hawaii Capitol in Honolulu on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. The senators passed a marriage equality bill, sending the measure to the House.

The House referred the bill to a joint committee Wednesday night, but not before a nearly four-hour session that was riddled with arguments, recesses, private caucus meetings and maneuvering by lawmakers on both sides to the issue to either move the measure along, delay it or advance a rival bill to put the matter to a public vote through a constitutional amendment.

At one point, Republican Rep. Gene Ward, who is against legalizing same-sex marriage, arg ued with Democratic House Speaker Joseph Souki over whether he could talk about the bill during its first reading. Souki had said he could not.

“Why are you muzzling us,” Ward said.

Souki told Ward he was out of order, then quickly called a recess.

The bill passed easily, 20-4, earlier Wednesday on the Senate floor with one senator abstaining because his mother had died in the morning. The Hawaii Senate is dominated by Democrats, with only one Republican.

Democratic Sen. Clayton Hee said before voting for the bill in the Senate that the moment is career-defining and lawmakers should embrace it.

“I ask you to expand the meaning of the word ‘aloha’ to truly include everyone,” regardless of race, creed or sexual orientation, Hee said.

House Majority Leader Scott Saiki has said it’s likely the chamber will amend the bill to change religious exemptions. The Senate bill exempts ministers and other clergy – but not for-profit businesses – from ha ving to perform gay wedding ceremonies.

“The House committees recognize that there is still a lot of public concern about the scope of the exemptions,” Saiki said.

The House is made up of 44 Democrats and seven Republicans. While Souki has said he believes there’s enough support to pass gay marriage, some Democrats plan to vote no on the bill.

Hee said after the Senate vote that he has spoken with leadership in the House and told them that senators may not support expanded religious exemptions if they allow gay couples to be discriminated against as a separate class of people from others.

“Those are efforts that I would caution against,” Hee told reporters after the Senate vote.

Two lawmakers, Sens. Sam Slom and Mike Gabbard, spoke in opposition to the bill and criticized everything from the special session itself to the consequence they say gay marriage will have on society.

Slom, the Senate’s only Republican, said the special session amo unted to political theater, with the outcome decided ahead of time.

“The votes were extracted or taken before we ever met – otherwise we wouldn’t have met,” he said.

Gabbard said the issue should have been heard during regular session, with more of an effort to include testimony from Kauai, Maui, the Big Island and other neighbor islands.

Because of the high public interest, the House committees waived a 24-hour deadline on submitting testimony, promising to accept testimony before and during the hearing. A Senate committee hearing on Monday packed a rotating crowd through a 200-seat basement auditorium.

If the bill passes as currently written, ceremonies for same-sex couples would begin Nov. 18.

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