Hawaii lawmakers to hold special session to consider gay marriage

Hawaii lawmakers to hold special session to consider gay marriage
Russian same-sex couples share a kiss as they arrive at a registry office to apply for marriage licences in St. Petersburg June 28, 2013. Five gay couples applied for the marriage licences, but their applications were not accepted by the authorities.

Hawaii, which had a pioneering role in the acceptance of same-sex matrimony in the United States two decades ago, could become the 15th state to extend marriage rights to gay couples when state lawmakers meet this week for a special session.

Governor Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, has called the session to start on Monday to debate a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage.

"I think Hawaii has always celebrated its sense of Aloha for one another," Abercrombie said in a telephone interview. "This is a question of equity."

In 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled it was discriminatory to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples.

But rather than pave the way for a gay marriage law, the ruling prompted a conservative backlash. In 1998, Hawaiian voters approved a state constitutional amendment that limited the right to marry to heterosexual couples.

The tide has begun to turn under Abercrombie, who was elected in 2010. He signed a same-sex civil unions bill into law in 2011 and has been a vocal proponent of gay marriage since then.

"To win now through the political process in Hawaii would show just how far public opinion in our nation has evolved, and how quickly," said Jon Davidson, legal director at Lambda Legal, which promotes gay civil rights. "It would demonstrate that ... allowing same-sex couples the same right to marry that different-sex couples cherish only provides greater joy and security to more families, and harms no one."

Just one year ago, only six states and the District of Columbia recognised same-sex marriage.

In June, the US Supreme Court delivered a landmark victory for gay rights by forcing the federal government to recognise same-sex marriages in states where it is legal and paving the way for gay marriage in California.

But the court did not endorse a fundamental right for gay people to marry, leaving the issue to be decided on a state-by-state basis, at least for now. Same-sex couples and gay rights organisations now have 36 lawsuits pending in 20 states, according to Davidson.

Last week, same-sex weddings started in New Jersey, and the high court in New Mexico heard arguments on whether gay marriage should be recognised there statewide.

Lawmakers in Illinois are also considering the issue.

"This is an issue where we've hit a tipping point," said James Esseks, who oversees gay rights advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union. "The momentum we have is striking."

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