Hawaii's largest religious denominations have come together in opposition to a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in the Aloha State.
With a special session of the state Legislature two weeks away, local leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, the faith-based Hawaii Family Forum and Hawaii Family Advocates, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have independently coalesced around the position that lawmakers should not pass proposed legislation to legalize gay marriage.
The bill, which has the support of some other religious groups, includes an exemption that would shield clergy and religious institutions opposed to gay marriage from solemnizing or recognizing same-sex ceremonies. But opponents say the exemption is not adequate, and some argue it will never satisfy their concerns.
What remains unclear is whether the faith groups opposed to the bill are united in an effort to put the marriage question before voters.
"The messaging of our coalition is to let the people decide whether to change the definition of marriage," said James Hochberg, president of HFA, the pro-family legislative action arm of the HFF that includes the Catholic Church and evangelical congregations among its members. "We want a constitutional amendment."
A letter read Sunday by local LDS Church leaders to adult members strongly opposed the bill, but didn't directly mention the option of amending the state constitution. It did encourage church members to educate themselves on the issue, call their lawmakers and "join your voices with others in organizations who share your views."
Whether lawmakers can be persuaded to send the marriage question to voters or come up with an exemption acceptable to opponents is too close to call. Observers on both sides of the debate agree the state Senate is firmly behind making Hawaii the 14th state, along with the District of Columbia, to legalize same-sex marriage. But opinions differ on the bill's fate in the House.
Churches speak out
In September, Gov. Neil Abercrombie called an Oct. 28 special session to consider the Hawaii Marriage Equality Act of 2013. Hawaii is credited with sparking the nationwide same-sex marriage debate more than 20 years ago when the state's Supreme Court ruled that not issuing a marriage license to a gay couple violated the state constitution's guarantee of equal protection.
Voters responded by amending the state constitution in 1998 giving the Legislature authority to reserve marriage for opposite-sex couples. Lawmakers passed a civil unions law for gay couples in 2011. A bill legalizing same-sex marriage was introduced in early 2013 but went nowhere.
But after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a pair of rulings in June favoring same-sex marriage — including one that granted federal benefits to same-sex couples married in states where gay marriage is legal — Abercrombie decided to revive the bill in special session. A Democrat who supports gay marriage, Abercrombie said he wanted same-sex marriage legalized before the end of the year so gay and lesbian couples could take advantage of the federal tax benefits.
Anticipating the governor's move, Bishop Larry Silva, who oversees the Catholic diocese of Honolulu, wrote a strongly worded letter to more than 220,000 Catholics in late August denouncing same-sex marriage and urging them to mobilize against its legalization and lobby their representatives to vote against the bill.
"It is said that some (lawmakers) have already made up their minds, and that may be so," the letter stated. "But minds and hearts can be changed with the influence of constituents."
Shortly after, Episcopal Church Bishop Robert Fitzpatrick fired off a letter to state executive and legislative leaders, urging them "to make marriage equality a reality in Hawaii as soon as possible."
Bishop Fitzpatrick had also signed a resolution a month earlier along with about two dozen other faith leaders of mainline Protestant, Jewish and other congregations calling on the Legislature to legalize same-sex marriage.
On Sunday, local LDS Church leaders read a letter to the adult men and women organizations of local congregations stressing the church's position against same-sex marriage and the bill:
"There are two reasons for our opposition: First, it attempts to redefine marriage. The church is firm in its belief that marriage as the union of a man and a woman is essential to the well-being of children, families, and society. Second, the protections offered in the current draft are completely inadequate to safeguard constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms. Traditional marriage and religious liberty are among the most cherished and historically vital elements of society, and both deserve careful protection."
The letter signed by local stake leadership expressed respect for those "who choose to live by other values," and urges church members to "educate yourselves on these matters and to let your voice be heard through the democratic process. We encourage you to call, write and visit your elected representatives to let them know where you stand. Join your voices with others in organizations who share your views."
The letter was the second the LDS Church has presented to members about the bill and upcoming special session. A letter read by local leaders on Sept. 14 advised members to study the church's 1995 Proclamation on the Family, which speaks out against gay marriage, and call their legislators to express their views.
"Whether or not you favor the proposed change, we hope that you will urge your elected representatives to include in any such legislation a strong exemption for people and organizations of faith," stated a copy of the letter from the Mililani Stake Presidency, one of 15 stakes in Hawaii where more than 71,000 Mormons live.
The earlier letter didn't sit right with some of the leading opponents of gay marriage who saw it as emphasizing an exemption instead of opposing the bill.
"I think that’s a mistake," Hochberg said a week after the letter was read. "We don’t support that position (of focusing on a religious exemption). ... If you are for plan B you will get plan B. And that’s our position, no plan B."
He said HFA and local LDS Church leaders had met to discuss what he characterized as competing messages.
Mililani Stake President Owen Matsunaga, a local Mormon leader involved in the campaign against the current bill, said in an email Sunday there was some confusion in the local press about the church's position and that the new leter is "a reaffirmation of our position in relation to same-sex marriage and religious liberty issues."
Hochberg, who didn't respond to a request for comment on the LDS Church's latest statement, doesn't place much confidence in religious exemptions: "It doesn't matter what kind of exemption is written, it is going to fail at some point," he said.
Instead, HFA is lobbying for the bill's defeat and legislation that would put the question of same-sex marriage up for a popular vote. That would be similar to what happened in 1998, when voters took the question out of the court's hands and authorized the Legislature as the only body that can reserve legal marriage for opposite-sex couples.
Hochberg contends that the marriage equality proposal violates the 1998 constitutional amendment because it changes the definition of marriage, and so the question should go back to voters to decide if they want to amend the state constitution again. If lawmakers pass the marriage equality bill and don't let voters decide, his group will sue.
Asked if local LDS Church leaders support putting the marriage question up for a public vote that would amend the constitution, Matsunaga said that "since the potential impact of redefining marriage in Hawaii is of such great significance and would have a profound impact on all of Hawaii’s people, we would hope that the process would allow for all involved to have a meaningful say in the outcome."
The ACLU in Hawaii disagrees with Hochberg's contention that the Hawaii constitution doesn't give the Legislature authority to change the definition of marriage. But, the organization does agree it will be difficult to expand the religious exemption in the current proposal.
The bill before Hawaii lawmakers has an exemption limited to protecting clergy from solemnizing marriages they object to and protecting religious organizations from being forced to make their buildings available for gay marriages, unless the facility is a profit-making venture or it is a "place of public accommodation" under state law.
"Both exemptions are drawn up after the civil unions bill ... and the intent of the bill is to ensure the exemptions track the public accommodations law that we have in the state," said Lois Perrin, legal director of the ACLU Hawaii, which supports the bill.
She said tweaking the religious facilities exemption is possible, but expanding exemptions to cover individuals and private businesses from having to accommodate gay marriage or legally married gay couples is "off the table."
Legislative leaders did not return calls for comment on whether there is room for negotiating a broader exemption.
A recent Honolulu Star Advertiser vote count showed the bill would easily pass in the Senate but support isn't as strong in the House, where 27 representatives appear in favor, 17 against and seven undecided. It takes 26 votes to pass a bill in the House.
Last month, Catholics were hedging their bets and joined LDS Church lobbyists in floating exemption language to lawmakers that would protect individuals as well as religious institutions from accommodating same-sex marriage.
"We don't like the bill and from a public policy standpoint we want (the Legislature) to vote it down," said Walter Yoshimitsu, executive director of the Hawaii Catholic Conference and point man for the church on the same-sex marriage bill. "In another way, we have said 'if it passes this is what we would like ... here is some suggested language.'"
Jonathan Goldberg-Hiller, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii who has written extensively on the state's contentious 20-year debate over same-sex marriage, said efforts to make the bill more acceptable to opponents are a "last gasp" attempt to prevent the inevitable legalization of gay marriage in Hawaii.
"You know as well as I that this is going to pass," he said in an email. "I very much doubt that opponents have the kind of energy they used to enjoy. ... In Hawaii, there is no party apparatus for the conservative churches to appeal to."
But Hochberg dismisses such predictions as premature. He says party affiliation (Democrats dominate both the House and Senate) is irrelevant on the marriage issue and there is still hope in the House to kill the bill.