American Foundation for Equal Rights

Marriage News Blog

States to Watch: Hawai’i

AFER is making the case for full federal marriage equality before the U.S. Supreme Court this spring, but there are several states which may see movement before a June 2013 decision. See more states to watch >

Hawaii was once regarded as a beacon of hope for marriage equality. In the 1990’s it could have been the first state that recognized the right to marry for gay and lesbian couples. A lengthy court case and constitutional amendment later, Hawaii currently has a civil union law, which went into effect in 2011.

Voters in 1998 did not ban marriage for gay and lesbian couples. Rather, they gave the authority to the legislature, which passed a ban that year.

The Hawaii legislature now has the authority to allow gay and lesbian couples the freedom to marry in the state.

The State House of Representatives is composed of 44 Democrats and 7 Republicans. The State Senate has 24 Democrats and 1 Republican.

Governor Neil Abercrombie is generally supportive. He received a 100% voting record from HRC during his time in Congress, and in response to a lawsuit by two lesbians seeking the freedom to marry, he said:

“Under current law, a heterosexual couple can choose to enter into a marriage or a civil union.  A same-sex couple, however, may only elect a civil union.  My obligation as Governor is to support equality under law.  This is inequality, and I will not defend it.”

Here’s a brief timeline of events as they unfolded:

  • 1993: In Baehr v. Miike (originally Baehr v. Lewin), the Hawaii State Supreme Court rules that denying marriage to same-sex couples constituted discrimination based on sex in violation of the constitutional right to equal protection. It remanded the case back to trial court.
  • 1996: Judge Kevin K.S. Chang rules that the state’s failure to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry violates the state’s constitution. He stays his opinion pending appeal to the Hawai’i State Supreme Court. In reaction, the United States enacts the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, preventing the federal government from recognizing the legal marriages of gay and lesbian couples and giving power to individual states to decide whether they will or not for the purposes of state law.
  • 1998: Voters approve a state constitutional amendment granting the Hawai’i Legislature the power to define marriage. The Legislature then passes a law limiting preventing gay and lesbian couples the ability to marry in the state.
  • 1999: The Hawai’i State Supreme Court reverses Chang’s ruling in light of the constitutional amendment.
  • 2011: A bill creating civil unions for both straight and gay couples passes the State Senate 19-6 and the State House of Representatives 31-19. The bill is signed into law by Governor Neil Abercrombie and takes effect on January 1, 2012.
  • 2012: A federal District Court judge rejects a claim by two lesbians that Hawaii’s failure to provide for same-sex marriage violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.  The case is on appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.