The Biker for Christ was among the last to testify, but what he had to tell two Senate committees Tuesday was among the most memorable testimony submitted on House Bill 2569 — a civil unions bill.
Civil unions has been Hawaii law since Jan. 1, but the Abercrombie administration said the law required technical fixes and clarifying language.
For example, HB 2569 would allow for automatic termination of a reciprocal beneficiary relationship when a couple enters into a civil union.
But, on March 1, House Finance amended the bill to include language that expanded exemptions for religious groups from prohibitions against sexual-orientation discrimination in public accommodations.
The new language could allow a church, for example, to refuse a civil union couple from holding a reception in its multi-purpose room.
In quietly amending HB 2569, House Finance publicly reopened a wound that had seemed to finally be healing. Hawaii, after all, had struggled for two decades over the rights of same-sex couples.
But, on Tuesday, lawmakers were once again deliberating over the emotional issue, with testifiers again including the Biker for Christ.
Also listening intently in Conference Room 016, where Senate Health and Senate Judiciary and Labor convened, were many other familiar civil union opponents: attorney Jim Hochberg, Walter Yoshimitsu of the Hawaii Catholic Conference and Allen Cardines Jr. of the Hawaii Family Forum.
Another opponent, Sen. Mike Gabbard, is a member of Senate Judiciary. So is proponent Les Ihara.
In attendance too were many of the very same players who had fought for civil unions — Tambry Young, Mitch Kahle, Carolyn Golojuch and former Hawaii Supreme Court Associate Justice Steven Levinson.
To quote a great ball player, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Judiciary Chair Sen. Clayton Hee said at the outset of Tuesday’s hearing that he was inclined to remove the religious exemption language because the Legislature had debated the issue innumerable times. He urged testifiers to keep things brief.
Most did, but not Biker for Christ. He liked the religious exemption that Hee wanted to kill, and he explained to Senate Health and Senate Judiciary and Labor exactly why.
“I was once in darkness, like a few members here,” he said, referring to the senators who sat across the conference table from him. “But I have been saved by grace of God and now see the light.”
Biker for Christ — he did not give his name but that’s what it says on the back of his leather vest, the vest he always wears when testifying at the Legislature, along with his blue jeans and boots and bandana — continued:
What are churches for? For people like him, he said, for people who had sinned and needed guidance. The sexually immoral. The homosexual offenders. Drunkards.
“And that is what some of you were,” he said, looking directly at the senators. “Seventy-one percent of the population in 1998 defined marriage as one man and one woman. … You know that you railroaded the issue (of civil unions) down the throats of the public. … Ministers of Satan want to perform civil unions.”
“Don’t listen to the chair,” he told Hee’s colleagues. “He has shown flagrant disregard for will of the people and churches. … He is a very strong supporter for the homosexual agenda.”
Hee, who played a leading roll in guiding civil unions through the 2011 Legislature, ignored Biker for Christ (who, as he left the Senate conference room, said, “A fool says in his heart that there is no God.”)
Instead, Hee made sure everyone who came to testify on HB 2569 had their chance. He then called for a vote, and the measure passed without the expansion of religious exemptions.
But the vote was not unanimous, and several senators voted “yes” with reservations. Gabbard and Republican Sen. Sam Slom voted “no.”
HB 2569 now goes to the Senate floor for a full vote and will almost certainly end up in conference committee, where the fate of a bill can change suddenly and dramatically.
Hawaii’s civil unions law, known as Act 1, does not require clergy, judges or other officiants to perform civil unions ceremonies against their will.
The proposed religious exemption language in HB 2569, found in section two of a second House draft of the bill, would do as follows:
Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, a religious organization, association, or society, or any nonprofit institution or organization operated, supervised, or controlled by or in conjunction with a religious organization, association, or society shall not be required to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges to an individual if the request for such services, accommodation, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges is related to the solemnization of a civil union.
The exemption pitted several government agencies against each other.
Hawaii Deputy Attorney General Jill Nagamine suggested “narrower language” for section two “that we believe would permit religious groups to deny use of facilities only if it violated their religious beliefs.”
But Bill Hoshijo, executive director of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, said section two would create a “broad exemption” to Hawaii’s public accommodations law that prohibits sexual-orientation discrimination. Hoshijo referred to section two as “a slippery slope.”
A third agency, the Department of Health — which issues civil unions licenses — asked that section two be removed. That way the bill could return to its original intent: to fix technical problems in the civil unions law.
Mitch Kahle, a First Amendment activist, described the placing of section two into HB 2569 as “disturbing” and “offensive,” a rolling back of a decade’s worth of efforts to add sexual orientation to the public accommodations law.
“Shame on the attorney general for even suggesting this,” said Kahle.
Senators wanted to know what defined “public accommodation.”
Hoshijo, paraphrasing statute, said it was any entity that offers goods, services, accommodates, advantages and benefits to public. The list would includes hotels but also churches that charge commercially for, say, a community group’s use of its facility.
How did that apply to Japanese weddings held in local churches like Kawaiahao? Or the Polynesian Cultural Center, which is run by the Mormon church?
Hoshijo and the Deputy Attorney General Deirdre Marie-Iha office said that discrimination complaints would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Meanwhile, Walter Yoshimitsu of the Hawaii Catholic Conference testified in support of section two.
“We just want to have religious freedom,” he said.
Allen Cardines Jr. of Hawaii Family Forum said many people were “disheartened” by the thought that religious groups would have to allow civil union ceremonies.
“We want to protect the churches,” he said.
Hochberg, who provides legal advice to the Catholic Conference, argued against the idea that churches provide public accommodation. He said that without the expanded religious exemption, island ministries would be forced to shut down.
But Carolyn Golojuch, who has a gay son and has long fought for gay civil rights, said that senators should no longer allow the Capitol to be “the Vatican of the Pacific” or the “daily offices” of the Hawaii Family Forum and the Mormon church.
The civil unions battle is not over.
In addition to HB 2569, a similar measure, Senate Bill 2571, is moving through the House. Like HB 2569, it’s designed to fix technical problems in the civil unions law but does not include language expanding religious exemptions.
The fight over civil unions legislation continues as the Abercrombie administration also finds itself both supporting and defending the state’s constitutional amendment that allows the Legislature to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
Jackson v. Abercrombie, filed last month in U.S. District Court in Honolulu, argues that the amendement is unconstitutional. Hochberg, local counsel on behalf of Hawaii Family Forum, is one of many Alliance Defense Fund attorneys who have asked a federal court for permission to intervene against the lawsuit.
“Hawaii has been defending against this redefinition since 1993,” Hochberg said in an ADF press release March 2. “Our state should not now succumb to demands that we ignore marriage as society’s time-tested way to bless as many children as possible with both a mom and a dad. Marriage expresses the truth that men and women bring distinct, irreplaceable gifts to family life.”