Sometimes history is anti-climatic, yet no less historic.

That was the case Tuesday when Hawaii’s Senate passed a highly controversial gay marriage bill, sending it on to Gov. Neil Abercrombie for his expected signature as soon as Wednesday.

Unlike the raucous crowds, passionate testimony and heated floor debate on both sides of Senate Bill 1 over the past two weeks, it was a far more subdued atmosphere at the state Capitol. And for the first time, supporters heavily outnumbered opponents, the latter group likely resigned to concede the inevitable.

The legislation makes Hawaii either the 15th or 16th state to legalize same-sex marriage, depending on whether Abercrombie signs the bill before Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn does; that state’s legislature approved a similar bill last week.

“I would contend that we are simply serving the role history has afforded us — serving as the bridge between the somewhat divided public sentiment of today and where we aspire to be as a society and a people tomorrow,” Sen. Jill Tokuda said in her floor speech before the final vote.

“And so I look forward to that day, and I hope it isn’t too far into the future, when the way we think meets up with the way we live — like it did with our views on slavery, school segregation and inter-racial marriage.”

Hawaii’s bill passed the House of Representatives Friday after a seemingly endless floor session. Wanting to avoid the drawn-out, dramatic and woefully repetitive hearing and floor debate over SB 1, Senate leaders on Saturday announced that they would accept the legislation as amended by the House, which broadened the religious exemption and changed the effective date to Dec. 2.

And that’s what they did Tuesday, by a vote of 19-4. The vote, said Sen. Clayton Hee, who shepherded the bill through the Judiciary Committee, was about “equal justice under law” — the words engraved on the front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

“This is a moment I believe all of us will remember,” a beaming Hee told reporters after the vote.

President Even Prouder to Be Born in Hawaii

The response to the Senate’s action reverberated from Washington Place to Washington, D.C.

“In Hawaii, we believe in fairness, justice and human equality,” Abercrombie said in a statement. “We embrace the Aloha spirit and respect one another. Today, we celebrate our diversity defining us rather than dividing us.”

Some 5,000 miles away, President Barack Obama (a keiki o ka aina) chimed in: “With today’s vote, Hawaii joins a growing number of states that recognize that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters should be treated fairly and equally under the law. … By giving loving gay and lesbian couples the right to marry if they choose, Hawaii exemplifies the values we hold dear as a nation. I’ve always been proud to have been born in Hawaii, and today’s vote makes me even prouder.”  

Democrats Donovan Dela Cruz and Brian Taniguchi were absent for Tuesday’s vote, though both voted in favor of SB 1 last week. Democrats Mike Gabbard, Ron Kouchi and Donna Mercado Kim, the Senate president, voted “no,” as did Republican Sam Slom.

Gabbard, one of the most visible opponents of gay rights over the past 20 years, said he was “disappointed and dismayed” that the contentious issue of gay marriage was not put before voters. He accused his colleagues of ignoring the majority of testimony that opposed SB 1.

“No court has ever ruled that marriage is a civil right,” he argued, adding that he feared the “B” in the LGBT community — bisexuals — would now seek group marriage. The remark elicited chuckles from the side of the Senate gallery packed with rainbow-lei wearing citizens, who privately said he clearly doesn’t understand that a bisexual is not a polygamist.

Slom complained that it should not be “the hand of man” that bends the arc of justice toward marriage equality, but rather the divine “hand of God.” He said the bill was bad for schools, bad for business, bad for churches and bad for social conduct.

Was the bill rushed, Slom asked rhetorically? “You betcha!”

Slom also resurrected the claim by many SB 1 opponents that the bill’s enactment into law would force public schools to teach that homosexuality is acceptable. He pointed to material from Niu Valley Middle School on Oahu that he said proved his point.

At a press conference later, Tokuda, the education committee chairwoman, called Slom’s comments “absolutely incorrect.” She said students can opt out of such lesson plans, a point that SB 1 supporters have been making repeatedly.

“It’s a great disservice to the community that [Slom] made such a statement on the Senate floor today,” she said.

Countering the Critics

In many ways, the Senate floor speeches sought to counter the key criticisms of SB 1.

Was it rushed, a done deal all along? Hee said no, calling assertions of collusion “absolute garbage.”

Hee reminded people that the governor gave several weeks’ notice of the special session, that lawmakers had heard and read massive amounts of testimony and that Hawaii has been debating the civil rights of gays for two decades.

Is gay marriage an affront to Hawaiian values? No, said Gil Kahele, a Native Hawaiian senator that said “aikane” — ancient Hawaiian same-sex relationships that were more than just friendships — were accepted until the missionaries came in the 19th century and destroyed the kapu system.

“We’ve come full circle,” Kahele said. “It’s time for kekahi e kekahi — it’s time for Aloha to all.”

Should the people be allowed to vote on same-sex marriage? Tokuda said that would not have been a good idea when it came to slavery, interracial relationships and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Would religious groups be forced to honor gay couples? No, said Will Espero, the bill’s religious exemptions take care of that: “No one is forcing this upon you. You can avoid it completely.”

Espero, and other senators such as Russell Ruderman, expressed how shocked they were by the hateful language he heard by SB 1 opponents. Espero noted a woman who wrote to him saying the storm that devastated the Philippines this week was “caused by sinners.”

“My God, what are we doing?” asked Espero, a Catholic, Filipino-American.

The Hawaii Legislature began its special session Oct. 28 at the order of the governor. While lawmakers took up other issues, including the rejection of two gubernatorial appointments, it was same-sex marriage that thoroughly dominated the past two weeks.

Nathan Eagle/Honolulu Civil Beat

Sen. Brickwood Galuteria speaks on the floor as the public listens in the gallery, Nov. 12, 2013.

SB 1 required a 12-hour hearing before the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee, more than 55 hours before the House Judiciary and Finance committees, and two day-long House floor sessions. More than 5,000 people signed up to give oral testimony; written and online testimony number well over 25,000 individual submissions.

Tuesday’s Senate floor session, by contrast, was relatively brief at a mere three hours. It lacked the large group of protesters in the Capitol Rotunda shouting “Let the people vote!”

Hee was asked about possible technical errors in SB 1 raised by some House members Tuesday morning. The senator expressed confidence that they could be worked out in future legislation. Hee also dismissed the likelihood that legal challenges to same-sex marriage would succeed, saying he sided with retired Hawaii Supreme Court Justice Steven Levinson who was 100 percent confident they would fail.

Hee was also asked about the practical implications of the bill.

“Life will go on,” he responded. “The Earth will continue to rotate on its axis, and we will move forward — all of us.”

Capturing the sentiment of the majority, a choked-up Sen. Michelle Kidani said, “All families are families, not just men and women. All families are made of love.”

Here’s how the Senate voted on the final reading of the House draft of SB 1:

Member Party Vote
Baker, Rosalyn Democrat Yes
Chun Oakland, Suzanne Democrat Yes
Dela Cruz, Donovan Democrat Excused
English, J. Kalani Democrat Yes
Espero, Will Democrat Yes
Gabbard, Mike Democrat No
Galuteria, Brickwood Democrat Yes
Green, Josh Democrat Yes
Hee, Clayton Democrat Yes
Ige, David Democrat Yes
Ihara, Les Democrat Yes
Kahele, Gilbert Democrat Yes
Keith-Agaran, Gilbert Democrat Yes
Kidani, Michelle Democrat Yes
Kim, Donna Mercado Democrat No
Kouchi, Ron Democrat No
Nishihara, Clarence Democrat Yes
Ruderman, Russell Democrat Yes
Shimabukuro, Maile Democrat Yes
Slom, Sam Republican No
Solomon, Malama Democrat Yes
Taniguchi, Brian Democrat Excused
Thielen, Laura Democrat Yes
Tokuda, Jill Democrat Yes
Wakai, Glenn Democrat Yes

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