HONOLULU -- Seeking to sidetrack a landmark same-gender marriage case, both houses of the Hawaii legislature today approved a constitutional amendment that would expand the power of state lawmakers to restrict marriages to opposite-sex couples, while also granting lesbian and gay couples a portion of the benefits available to married couples.
The American Civil Liberties Union immediately condemned the vote, saying the amendment would diminish the independence of the courts and rewrite the state's constitution to relegate lesbians and gay men in Hawaiians to second-class citizens.
"This vote will go down in history as one of the saddest days for the Hawaii legislature," said Vanessa Chong, executive director of the ACLU of Hawaii. "For the first time in the state's history, the legislature has voted to change our constitution to deprive a group of their civil liberties."
The vote capped off years of legislative wrangling in the state after the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in May 1993 that the state's ban on same-gender marriages may violate the equal protection guarantee of the Hawaii Constitution. Votes on the constitutional amendment were 25-0 in the Senate, 44-6 in the House. (The margin on the benefits package was 22-3 in the Senate, 40-10 in the House.)
The proposed constitutional amendment does not actually ban same-gender marriages, but would give the state legislature more power to restrict marriages. If the amendment were ultimately adopted, some believe the state legislature would have to approve a separate law restricting marriages to opposite-sex couples to ban same-gender unions.
The amendment will now be put on a statewide ballot, which could be held as early as November 1998. The ACLU will shift its focus to educating voters, and work to defeat the measure at the ballot box by explaining the dangers of editing the state constitution to target a specific group.
The "reciprocal beneficiaries" package approved by the legislature gives the partners of lesbians and gay men a range of benefits including inheritance rights, the right to sue for wrongful death, and health and pension benefits for state employees. The package would also offer such benefits to other pairs living together who cannot marry, such as a widowed mother and her unmarried son.
"Although this is an important step forward--marking the first time any state has granted significant recognition to lesbian and gay couples--the package falls significantly short of equality," said Matt Coles, director of the national ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "Lesser rights do not add up to equal rights."
The measures passed today could ultimately affect the landmark case brought by three lesbian and gay couples in 1991. That case is now back before the Hawaii Supreme Court, which must still rule on whether there is a "compelling reason" for the state to deny marriage licenses to gay residents. If the voters approve the constitutional amendment, the expected victory in the case will effectively be overruled.
After a trial in September, a Circuit Court judge ruled that Hawaii had failed to show a compelling reason, and ordered the state to grant the licenses -- although that order was subsequently stayed pending the state supreme court's final decision.
"This vote is a major setback for civil rights," said the ACLU's Chong, who has been holding a week-long vigil with other groups at the state capitol to protest the proposed amendment. "We are going to turn our attention next to the ballot box, and work in coalition with other groups to defeat this amendment. We have a long and hard road ahead of us for the next 18 months."