Advocate June 23, 1998
Few heterosexuals would be willing to put their right to marry on a ballot for voter approval, but that's the prospect gay men and lesbians are facing in Hawaii. With the outcome in the courts looking bright, activists are now turning their attention to a proposal going before the public for a vote this fall, to amend Hawaii's constitution to allow for the prohibition of same-sex unions.
"The historic court case is on the verge of making legal recognition of our relationships a reality, "says David Smith, communications director for the Human Rights Campaign, the Washington, D.C.-based gay lobbying group. "It's moved further and faster than anyone ever thought possible. It's imperative that this constitutional amendment not move forward."
Hawaii's courts have held that denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples violates the state's constitution, and the state's supreme court is expected to adhere to that position when it issues its final decision in the landmark case. Therefore, opponents of same-sex marriage have sought to remove the constitutional underpinning for that decision.
The proposed constitutional amendment would give the state legislature the power to reserve marriage for opposite-sex couples only (although it would not require the legislature to do so). It is on the ballot because of political jockeying that took place last year. Originally the state house of representatives had refused to put such an amendment before voters. However, after laborious negotiations a majority in the house voted for the amendment proposal as part of a package that includes a separate bill providing about 60 benefits -- like medical coverage and hospital visitation rights -- to "reciprocal beneficiaries," such as gay partners and other household members.
The campaign to defeat the ballot measure, which kicked into gear at the beginning of the year, is being run by two groups. Protect Our Constitution, based in Hawaii, has garnered support from several local organizations, including the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Japanese American Civic League. A second group, called Protect Our Constitution/Human Rights Campaign, is funding media and field operations for the campaign through the D.C.-based HRC.
The groups will have their work cut out for them. The push for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage has attracted high-profile proponents; leaders of the Roman Catholic and Mormon churches in Hawaii are expected to strongly support the amendment.
In addition, Smith says, "we are going to be countering quite a substantial effort on the other side coming from the mainland. The opposition has already received assistance from antigay groups on the mainland, and we want to make sure the playing field is as even as it can be." Smith says polling indicates it's possible to defeat the amendment, although doing so would not be easy. Each side is expected to raise at least $1 million for its campaign. Dan Foley, who is cocounsel in the marriage case, says beating back the amendment is critical. "We're going to win our court case," he says. "To preserve that victory we have to win in November. It's really the last battle. IF we win this, we have marriage in Hawaii, and marriage will blossom throughout the country."
Foley stresses that, unlike other ballot measures,
the Hawaii initiative has far-reaching, national implications. "It's
not just another antigay initiative, where you 're no better off if you
win," he says. "This is the highest stakes. Those people who
have no intention of getting married have to understand this is a civil
rights issue. The lines happen to be drawn on marriage."