Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund on Wednesday said it is disappointed but not defeated by Hawaii voters' approval of an unprecedented constitutional amendment aimed at blocking lesbian and gay couples from civil marriage. A similar measure was also approved in Alaska.
"Although a disappointment and setback that leaves more hurdles in our path, these votes do not stop our march to equality," said Lambda Marriage Project Director Evan Wolfson. Lambda is a leader in the national battle to win the freedom to marry for same-sex couples and co-counsel in the Hawaii marriage case, Baehr v. Miike, now before the state's highest court.
"I have faith that the more the public hears about how discrimination hurts real life lesbian and gay couples ó people who commit to each other in sickness and in health, raise families, pay taxes, yet have no legal protections when medical and other emergencies arise ó the more the public will support ending sex discrimination in civil marriage, and allow these couples to wed," Wolfson said.
"It is wrong that basic civil rights for a vulnerable minority were put to a vote at all. This slices at the core of our democratic system and cuts a hole into Hawaii's constitution," said Dan Foley, a Honolulu attorney and co- counsel in the Hawaii marriage case. "One day, lesbian and gay couples in this state will be allowed the same legal protection and recognition that I have with my wife and family. Meanwhile, we fight on in court and in the legislature," he said.
Wolfson noted that were it left to a ballot measure and not to the courts, racist marriage laws would still be on the books in this country. Ironically, on the same night that Hawaii and Alaska voters approved their anti-marriage amendments, South Carolina voters finally repealed their state constitution's ban on interracial marriages. But even in 1998, more than three decades after the United States Supreme Court struck down such racist laws, nearly 40 percent voted to keep the ban.
Voters also approved a similar measure in Alaska, where a court case on behalf of a gay couple is at an earlier stage than Hawaii's.
Religious groups largely funded the anti-gay campaigns to restrict civil marriage licenses in Hawaii and Alaska, with well over a million dollars from the Utah-based Mormon church alone. The religious groups argued that extending the freedom to marry to lesbian and gay couples somehow would diminish heterosexual families ó even though a Hawaii circuit court judge found the reverse, ruling in a 1996 landmark case that no one would be harmed by legalizing marriage for same-sex couples, whose families, in fact, would be helped.
"Just as it took decades to end discriminatory laws against interracial marriages ó which were only banished nationally in 1967 ó this is a long-haul struggle. Our outreach and legal efforts will continue in Hawaii and the rest of the country," Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn said.
Background and backlash to marriage cases in Hawaii, Alaska, and Vermont
On Tuesday,Hawaii voters approved the ballot question:
Shall the Constitution of the State of Hawai'i be amended to specify that the legislature shall have the power to reserve marriage to opposite sex couples?
It now is up to state legislators whether to enact discriminatory legislation under the amendment; meanwhile, despite Tuesday's vote, the Baehr case on behalf of three same-sex couples, still will move forward.
In 1993, the state Supreme Court ruled in Baehr that restricting civil marriage to mixed-sex couples is unconstitutional sex discrimination unless the state could show a compelling reason for not allowing same-sex couples to wed. In his 1996 decision, Circuit Court Judge Kevin Chang found the state could offer no good reason for its discrimination but stayed his decision while the state appealed to Hawaii's highest court.
In Alaska, voters approved a ballot question that asked:
To be valid or recognized in this State, a marriage may exist only between one man and one woman.
In Vermont, a case brought by long-term couples denied civil marriage licenses will be argued before the state's highest court in mid-November.
"Despite the disappointing outcome at the polls in Hawaii and Alaska, cases in those states as well as in Vermont will proceed," said Dohrn, adding, "Over time, people will see through the Religious Right's scare tactics and understand that communities are strengthened when more families have access to the legal protections and recognition that come only with civil marriage."
Wolfson, who works intensively on building support for gay people's freedom to marry around the country as well as on the Hawaii case, emphasized that backlash is common in civil rights battles.
"For example, in the supposedly 'liberal' Sixties, California voters amended their constitution in order to subvert a court-ordered end to race discrimination in housing," he recalled. "It took years of organizing and protest to overturn that misbegotten amendment. Like the votes in Hawaii and Alaska, civil rights history shows irrational prejudice is stubborn, and hard work is needed for justice to prevail."