Hawaii lawmakers debate same-sex marriage bill on House floor

Oskar Garcia, APHawaii lawmakers advanced a gay marriage bill at a House joint committee hearing on Tuesday. OSKAR GARCIA [ap]

Updated: 6:30 p.m. HST

HONOLULU — A bill to legalize gay marriage in Hawaii faced a crucial test in the House on Wednesday as crowds for and against same-sex marriage chanted for hours outside the chamber, drowning out lawmakers as they tried to speak.

A floor session started Wednesday morning and immediately went into recess, with majority members in the Democratic-heavy House meeting in caucus to discuss amendments to a bill that spurred five days of public testimony at a committee hearing.

Oskar Garcia, APHawaii lawmakers advanced a gay marriage bill at a House joint committee hearing on Tuesday.

Oskar Garcia, AP
Hawaii lawmakers advanced a gay marriage bill at a House joint committee hearing on Tuesday.

When lawmakers returned, chants of “let the people vote” from opponents of gay marriage disrupted discussion of changes proposed on the floor.

“Excuse me, the door’s supposed to be closed,” House Speaker Joseph Souki said as he tried to keep the meeting in order.

Two House committees have already amended the bill that would allow gay couples to marry in the state beginning Nov. 18, delaying the start date to Dec. 2 and slightly broadening a religious exemption that covers clergy and religious organizations. The committee also deleted language from the bill that related to how children of gay couples could qualify for Native Hawaiian benefits.

Lawmakers proposed even more changes on the floor of the House.

Rep. Marcus Oshiro, a Democrat who has said he has reservations about the bill, proposed an amendment to delay discussion so lawmakers could have more flexibility to review more than 20,000 pieces of written testimony and spoken testimony from more than 5,000 people who signed up.

The amendment was rejected by a voice vote, as were two more amendments that proposed wider religious exemptions, including one that said if any part of the law is struck down in court, the whole gay marriage law would be overturned.

“I do not believe this idea is worth your time,” said Rep. Della Belatti, a Democrat who supports gay marriage. She said the expanded exemptions would allow people to discriminate against gay people in m any ways.

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Another amendment to put the question of same-sex marriage to voters through a constitutional amendment failed in a roll call vote, 28-19 with four members excused.

Rep. Richard Fale, a Republican who pushed for allowing voters to decide the issue, said lawmakers aren’t putting their best work forward by pushing the bill through a special session with backroom deals.

“My confidence in this body is shaken. The people’s confidence in this body is shaken,” Fale said. “We know that this is not the best we can do and we need to go back to work.”

The state Senate, which has already passed a version of the bill, would have to approve any changes. Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Attorney General David Louie said in a statement Tuesday night that they support the changes made by the House Finance and Judiciary committees.

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