The election of America's first African-American president last week helped to put an exclamation point on the the civil rights movement's mission to bring the nation out of racial segregation. However, the California vote to pass Proposition 8, which eliminates the right of same-sex couples to marry, highlights a continuing struggle by the LGBTQ community in Hawai'i to guarantee its own civil liberties.
Proponents for Proposition 8 were successful, with 52 percent of California voters checking "yes" on the ballot. Lobby groups such as ProtectMarriage.com, presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, and other religious organizations argue that defining marriage as a union between "any two persons" opens the door to far-reaching consequences.
The primary example that ProtectMarriage.com gives on its website is that "because public schools are already required to teach the role of marriage in society as part of the curriculum, schools will now be required to teach students that gay marriage is the same as traditional marriage, starting with kindergarteners" and that same-sex marriage would "undermine the value of marriage altogether at a time when we should be restoring marriage."
ProtectMarriage.com's campaign that led to the creation of Proposition 8 began when the California Supreme Court overturned a 2000 vote to define marriage as between a man and a woman in California.
The California Supreme Court stated in its decision:
"In holding today that the right to marry guaranteed by the state Constitution may not be withheld from anyone on the ground of sexual orientation, this court discharges its gravest and most important responsibility under our constitutional form of government. There is a reason why the words 'Equal Justice Under Law' are inscribed above the entrance to the courthouse of the United States Supreme Court. Both the federal and the state Constitutions guarantee to all the 'equal protection of the laws' (U.S. Const., 14th Amend.; Cal. Const., art. I, § 7), and it is the particular responsibility of the judiciary to enforce those guarantees. The architects of our federal and state Constitutions understood that widespread and deeply rooted prejudices may lead majoritarian institutions to deny fundamental freedoms to unpopular minority groups, and that the most effective remedy for this form of oppression is an independent judiciary charged with the solemn responsibility to interpret and enforce the constitutional provisions guaranteeing fundamental freedoms and equal protection."
Grassroots campaigns by both sides of the marriage argument spent over $70 million on advertising.
In a statement on last week's passing of Proposition 8, ProtectMarriage.com chairman Ron Prentice said, "Proposition 8 has always been about restoring the traditional definition of marriage. It doesn't discriminate or take rights away from anyone. Gay and lesbian domestic partnerships will continue to enjoy the same legal rights as married spouses. Our coalition has no plans to seek any changes in that law."
The impact of Proposition 8 reaches Hawai'i
Supporters of same-sex marriage from JoinTheImpact.com are continuing to fight for equal rights among the LGBTQ community by encouraging conversation on a state-by-state basis.
JoinTheImpact.com's mission statement says, "Our movement seeks to encourage the LGBTQ community not to look towards the past and place blame, but instead to look forward toward what needs to be done now to achieve one goal: Full equality for all."
The struggle for equality through same-sex marriage recognition here in the islands is one that has had national implications in the past.
The current definition was set after the decade-long legal tug-of-war that occurred when three gay couples sued the Department of Health after it denied them marriage licenses in 1991. The Hawai'i Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that the department's actions were unconstitutional unless the state could provide justification. As a result, in 1996, Circuit Court Judge Kevin Chang's ruled that the prohibition of same-sex marriage violated the state constitution's equal protection clause, which stated marriage licenses could not be denied on the basis of gender.
However, it was when Hawai'i voters, in a 285,000 to 127,000 decision, managed to pass a constitutional amendment that allows only opposite-sex couples to marry that active political conversation on the issue was stalled. And in 1999, the Hawai'i Supreme Court ruled unanimously against same-sex marriage.
Same-sex couples in Hawai'i are currently only able to enter into reciprocal beneficiary relationships with the Department of Health, which allow marriage rights granted by the state that do not pertain to family court (such as alimony, divorce, and child custody resolution) or fair access to health insurance. Reciprocal beneficiaries also do not receive any federal benefits in the same way that opposite-sex married couples do.
This may soon change. Recent legislation aims to allow Hawai'i same-sex couples rights currently denied to them. House Bill 907 introduced by Rep. Calvin Say and Rep. Marcus Oshiro in the Hawai'i State Legislature would allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions with the same requisites, rights, and responsibilities as opposite-sex marriages. The bill also states, "Every reference in the Hawai'i Revised Statutes to 'marriage,' 'married,' 'husband,' 'wife,' or 'spouse,' shall apply equally to 'civil unions,' civil union contracts,' or 'civil union partners.'" HB 907 has been carried over to next session and will be heard by the Judicial Committee.
Activists rally the Hawai'i community
While the nation waits for Supreme Court Justices and legislators to decide things on the political front, activists around the country are encouraging public dialogue now.
This Saturday, the Aloha Pride Center is coordinating a Proposition 8 protest rally in conjunction with rallies throughout the United States organized through JoinTheImpact.com.
"Although Prop. 8 directly affects our California brothers and sisters, we as citizens of Hawai'i will never achieve equal rights without showing solidarity and refusing to be treated as 'second-class citizens' and without equal protection under the Constitution," an Aloha Pride Center spokesperson said.
Proposition 8 Protest Rally, Sat. 11/15 at 8:30 a.m., Honolulu Hale, 530 S. King St. at Punchbowl Street in front of the 9/11 Memorial.