Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions Tuesday to overturn a ban on federal benefits for same-sex couples and to effectively allow same-sex marriages in California, what does this mean for Hawaii?

Should gay couples in Hawaii start booking venues, selecting wedding colors, booking florists, and apply for a marriage permit? In other words, are we counting down to a bunch of gay and lesbian weddings?

Having watched this dizzying evolution of this issue closely for the last 20 years, both as a reporter and as a resident of Hawaii, my sense is that they shouldn’t expect to set up their wedding registries any time too soon.

I remember when, on July 6, 2010, Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed a civil unions bill.

“I am vetoing this bill because I have become convinced that this issue is of such societal importance that it deserves to be decided by all the citizens of Hawaii,” Lingle said that day.

It took a new governor to bring change. In that case, it was just seven months later — on Feb. 23, 2011 — when Neil Abercrombie signed a new civil unions bill into law.

Civil Beat

Gov. Lingle vetoing civil unions.

By signing, Abercrombie said, it was a message “to all of the world that they are welcome. That everyone is a brother or sister here in paradise.”

By the early hours of Jan. 1, 2012, same-sex couples were logging on to the Department of Health’s website to fill out a civil unions application that were soon followed by civil union ceremonies. “Congratulations,” Hawaii state Sen. Les Ihara told four couples at a ceremony in Aina Haina. “You symbolize what we have all been fighting for.”

Civil unions were a step, but Hawaii has a ways to go before any sort of same-sex weddings reach these shores.

Keep in mind that the Supreme Court has not ruled that same-sex marriage should be the law of the land. They just allowed the battle to shift back to individual states where citizens, legislators or judges might decide the matter.

Evolution on the issue is likely to be a gradual process that may never find support in some parts of the country, while in others, it could take many years.

As gay weddings soon begin (again) in California, there will be 13 states, in addition to the District of Columbia, that permit same-sex marriage. Hawaii has so far resisted joining those states, siding instead with the 35 states that prohibit same-sex marriage. (New Jersey and New Mexico have no laws allowing for or prohibiting same-sex marriage.)

None of this means that the Supreme Court’s decision hasn’t stoked passions here. The partial victory for gay marriage advocates was immediately welcomed by many of Hawaii’s top leaders and supporters of marriage equality, and used to galvanize more concrete action here.

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Praying for civil unions veto, July 6, 2010.

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa said the state “should amend its laws, end discrimination in marriage, and make marriage equality in Hawaii a reality.” Gov. Neil Abercrombie said “my position to support a constitutional right to same sex marriage in Hawaii and elsewhere was given a substantial boost” by the rulings.

Hawaii’s delegates in Congress were among the members who reintroduced the Respect for Marriage Act, or ROMA, on Tuesday. It would provide a “uniform rule” for recognizing same-sex couples under federal law.

Closer to home, the House Speaker Joe Souki said that Democratic legislators here will be meeting to decide how to proceed on the issue. (No word yet, however, from Senate President Donna Mercado Kim, who voted against civil unions in 2010.)

The largest organization in favor of same-sex marriage, Hawaii United for Marriage — a statewide coalition of religious, business, labor and community groups — issued a statement suggesting that it will continue until total victory, calling for “equal treatment under the law” for all people.

A case that may help to define what that treatment is a local lawsuit, Jackson v. Abercrombie, that was filed in 2011 on behalf of a lesbian couple and a gay male. It makes the case that Hawaii’s 1998 ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

The governor’s side argues that the Constitution’s equal protection clause requires that same-sex marriage be legal in all states. But the Hawaii Attorney General is both fighting and supporting the lawsuit, since Loretta Fuddy — who is Abercrombie’s health director — chose to defend the law.

Civil Beat

Gov. Abercrombie signs civil unions bill, Feb. 23, 2011.

As Time Goes By

On the legislative front in Hawaii, there is a question about whether the Hawaii Legislature will pass same-sex marriage legislation, and if so, when. Civil unions took years to pass. Beyond that, 2014 is an election year with a lot of seats up because of the 2011 reapportionment. It remains to be seen how gay marriage will fit into electoral calculations this year.

And remember, lawmakers declined to even hear gay-marriage proposals during the 2013 session, with one key legislator saying that the votes just weren’t there. Opponents of marriage equality even introduced several measures, supported by influential legislators, that called for a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as “between one man and one woman.”

Those measures didn’t pass either, but there could be renewed efforts to bring this polemic issue before voters. That’s what opponents of gay marriage want, in hopes of replicating the popular vote of 1998 in which two-thirds of voters gave the Legislature the authority to restrict marriage to heterosexuals.

Another sign of the slow pace might be seen in the Legislature’s passage this year of a resolution creating a task force to study the social, economic and religious impacts of enacting marriage equality. The task force is supposed to report back to the Legislature later this year.

The task force could say that a flurry of gay marriage would be a boon to the economy, or that it could be bad for state tax receipts. Or something else entirely. It could also highlight the polemic nature of the subject amid its own internal divisions.

Though support for gay marriage seems to grow nationally by the week — Alaska’s Republican U.S. Senator, Lisa Murkowski, changed her views just last week — the trend lines have yet to become clear in Hawaii. In fact, a Civil Beat poll in January revealed that 50 percent of people in Hawaii oppose allowing same-sex couples to marry, while 42 percent support it.

And organized opposition to gay marriage has the potential to tilt political races. Just ask Marilyn Lee, the longtime Democratic Party legislator who lost her Mililani seat to Republican Beth Fukumoto last fall. As Civil Beat reported, Lee was targeted by a conservative Christian group that used mailers to discredit Lee’s support for issues like civil unions.

Ultimately, while supporters of “marriage equality” are celebrating this week, supporters of “marriage sanctity” are planning their next move. The fight continues. So some people might not want to buy those wedding flowers just yet.

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