Hawaii advocates of gay marriage applauded the introduction of legislation this week that would give same-sex couples the same status, legal and symbolic, as opposite-sex couples.

Hawaii United for Marriage, a new hui of civil rights organizations, said Senate Bill 1369 aligns well with President Barack Obama’s inaugural message.

In the first-ever use of the word “gay” in an inaugural address, Obama said, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.”

A similar measure, House Bill 1109, was also introduced. Both measures would follow the same path that civil unions took to eventual legalization, that is, through winning majority passage in the Hawaii Legislature and being signed into law by a governor supportive of gay equal rights.

But there are also several measures in both chambers that ask voters to decide the matter through a constitutional amendment. That is something opposed by some gay marriage advocates, who argue that voters should not decide matters of civil rights.

They remember what happened in 1998, when Hawaii voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that gave the Legislature the power to define marriage as between one man and one women, which it soon did.

Only a year after civil unions became legal in Hawaii after a long battle, the question of marriage for gays and lesbians is back at the state Capitol. Get ready for another showdown with long and emotional hearings and passionate arguments on both sides of this contentious issue.

Obama’s inaugural plug for gay marriage follows a series of falling dominoes in the LGBT rights movement.

It includes more states allowing gay marriage, permitting gays to serve openly in the military and pushing for repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Gay marriage is also on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket and a landmark decision could come by next summer or sooner.

Public opinion is shifting toward greater support of gay marriage. Even in Hawaii, where a majority of voters still oppose it, support numbers are inching higher, led by younger voters who are far more comfortable than their elders with giving gay people the same rights as straight people.

SB 1369, the same-sex marriage measure hailed by Hawaii United for Marriage — described as a statewide coalition “of congregations, businesses, labor unions and community organizations” — was introduced by Sens. Roz Baker and Gil Kahele. The bill reads in part, “The legislature intends that there be no legal distinction between same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples with respect to marriage under the laws of this State.”

The rights of couples already in civil unions or in reciprocal beneficiary relationships would continue should the couple seek a marriage license. Gender-specific terminology like “husband,” “wife,” “widow,” or “widower,” according to the bill, “shall be construed in a gender-neutral manner.”

As with civil unions, SB 1369 would not force people authorized to perform a marriage ceremony to do so against their will. Religious organizations like churches would not have to permit the use of their facilities, either, as long as those facilities are not used for commercial purposes.

As with heterosexual marriage, gay marriage would not be permitted among blood relatives or individuals under the age of 15. The law would permit gay marriage licenses beginning Dec. 2 of this year and allow for ceremonies beginning Jan. 1, 2014.

HB 1109, introduced by Rep. Faye Hanohano, contains near identical language to SB 1369.

Lois Perrin, legal director of the ACLU of Hawaii and part of Hawaii United for Marriage, said the drafting of both bills “represented considerable efforts nationally and locally” to use language that has been successful in gay marriage legislation in other states.

“They were also tailored to fit local statutes and civil unions law,” she said. “Both have been vetted and are supported by a broad consensus of the LGBT community and their supporters.

Perrin said her coalition believes the bills will be supported by “strong majorities in both the House and Senate,” and that Rep. Karl Rhoads, chairman of House Judiciary, is being lobbied to hear HB 1109 quickly.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie and his administration, which includes Deputy Chief of Staff Blake Oshiro, the architect of the civil unions law, have also reviewed the bills, Perrin said.

Reached late Friday, Abercrombie spokeswoman Louise Kim McCoy said a bill submitted by supporters of gay marriage was reviewed by the attorney general’s office. However, the administration has not yet had the opportunity to read SB139 and HB1109 to see if they are the same bills.

‘Between One Man And One Woman’

There are several proposals for constitutional amendments that would define marriage.

On the Senate side, SB 1292 calls for reserving marriage “to relationships between one man and one woman.”

The co-introducers of SB 1292 are Sens. Mike Gabbard, a vocal opponent of gay rights; Sam Slom, the lone Senate Republican; and Donna Mercado Kim, the Senate president. All three voted against civil unions, as did two other senators still in office, Will Espero and Donovan Dela Cruz.

On the House side there are three proposals for constitutional amendments, two of them introduced by Rep. John Mizuno, the vice speaker.

HB 1004 would define marriage as a relationship only between a man and a woman while HB 1005 defines as it “a legal relationship between two people of the opposite or same sex.”

As with the measures calling for gay marriage, HB 1004 and HB 1005 are very similar but with key differences.

The former states “a constitutional amendment that expressly limits marriage to a legally sanctioned union only between a man and a woman is necessary to provide further clarification and specificity” while the latter says “state law currently provides that a valid marriage exists only between a man and a woman, which is contrary to the overriding interest of equality. Therefore, a constitutional amendment that expressly recognizes legal equality in marriage laws for opposite and same sex couples is necessary.”

Put another way, HB 1004 prohibits gay marriage while HB 1005 allows it, but both leave it up to voters to decide.

The third House bill, HB 1020, restricts marriage between one man and one woman.

What sets it apart from Mizuno’s one-man, one-woman constitutional amendment is that it has 15 sponsors, and it is an eclectic bunch: Speaker Emeritus Calvin Say and supporters like Sharon Har; allies of Speaker Joe Souki including Karen Awana and Mark Takai; and top Republicans like Minority Leader Aaron Ling Johanson and Gene Ward.

While Say voted for civil unions, Har, Awana, Takai, Johanson, Ward and most of the other 15 did not. (Four of the 15 representatives are freshmen and so did not vote on civil unions). Of note: Souki didn’t support civil unions, either, sitting up a scenario this session in which the leaders of the House and Senate may be against gay marriage.

Opponents of gay marriage include Hawaii Family Forum, which played a central role in the 1998 debate.

“It is no secret that Hawaii Family Forum very clearly does not support the redefining of marriage,” said executive director Eva Andrade. “We are asking the Legislature to consider a couple of things. First, wait for the Supreme Court and the 9th Circuit to rule on right-to-marry cases. Civil unions was just established last session and we should wait to see how that actually benefits the people who requested it.”

She continued: “And third, though there was some question as to what people voted for in 1998, a majority did give the Legislature the right to amend the Constitution. So, we should put this back before the people in a very clear manner.”

Perrin, however, disagrees with that third point.

“We should not be voting on rights,” she said. “The Legislature has the power and the authority to define marriage, and gay marriage is the national trend and the local trend.”

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