Ted S. Warren, Associated Press
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."
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