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.
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