Friday, April 18, 2014
The Associated Press
HONOLULU — More than half of Hawaii's House lawmakers are spending Halloween listening to the public's sentiments as they consider legalizing gay marriage, giving some hints of how they might modify a bill already passed by the state Senate.
And a Republican lawmaker against the bill who has expressed frustration with the process is hoping to disrupt the special session with a lawsuit.
State Sen. Bob McDermott told The Associated Press on Thursday that he's trying to get a judge "to shut this whole thing down."
"That's my objective," he said.
McDermott told House members on the floor Thursday morning that the lawsuit filed Wednesday became appropriate when the Senate passed its gay marriage bill.
McDermott is one of 30 House lawmakers on two committees holding a joint hearing, where nearly 4,000 people had signed up to testify in two-minute stretches before the meeting started, with signups being accepted until midnight. The hearing is expected to go at least that late, then resume Friday if needed.
"Anyone who signs up by midnight will be allowed to testify," said Rep. Karl Rhoads, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, at the start of the hearing.
With 3,875 signed up to testify, testimony could take more than 129 hours — more than five 24-hour days — if speakers fully use their allotted two minutes. During a Senate hearing Monday, some speakers moved quickly, standing on their testimony, but many used their full time and went over, stopping only when interrupted and cut off.
House spokeswoman Carolyn Tanaka said 15,000 pieces of written testimony had been received by the judiciary and finance committees. The website accepting testimony went down because of traffic, but the committees accepted testimony by email and in person while staff worked to restore it, Tanaka said.
Proponents and opponents of gay marriage packed a basement hallway in the Capitol ahead of the hearing, while others waved signs, prayed and solicited car honks from the Capitol rotunda and street.
McDermott's lawsuit focused on a 1998 same-sex marriage ballot measure, which legislators are now relying on to make decisions on the issue. McDermott's lawsuit claims the Office of Elections instructions at the time gave voters the impression that a "yes" vote would mean reserving marriage to opposite-sex couples only.
According to the lawsuit, the wording in the instructions said: "A 'yes' vote would add a new provision to the Constitution that would give the Legislature the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples only."
"The word 'only' is the key," McDermott said Thursday. "The fact that the Senate acted, the issue is ripe."
The bill passed the Senate easily on Wednesday, advancing 20-4 with one senator abstaining because his mother had died in the morning. The Hawaii Senate is dominated by Democrats, with only one Republican.
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 having 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 this week.
The House is made up of 44 Democrats and seven Republicans. While House Speaker Joseph Souki has said he believes there's enough support to pass gay marriage, some Democrats plan to vote no on the bill.
Sen. Clayton Hee, chairman of its judiciary committee, 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.
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. Lawmakers also planned to give candy to trick-or-treating children who were expected to spend prime candy-hunting hours of Halloween at the Capitol.
If the bill passes as currently written, ceremonies for same-sex couples would begin Nov. 18.