The Hawaii State Senate will vote on a bill Tuesday that would legalize same-sex marriage in that state, and it’s expected to pass. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has worked with opposition leaders to fight the bill, but it’s unclear exactly what role the Church is playing.
About five percent of Hawaii’s population belongs to the LDS church. Mormons are the majority around Laie on the windward side of Oahu, where the BYU Hawaii campus and the church’s temple are located. Richard Fale is the state representative from that district, a Republican in a chamber dominated by Democrats.
“I am a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," Fale told KUER. "I am the only Tongan – I am the only person of Tongan ancestry in elected office in the entire United States right now. These are things that are very critical to who I am and what makes me a person. But in my position here as a state representative, it’s to represent what my community feels is in its best interest.”
The opposition to the Hawaii Marriage Equality Act of 2013 included Catholic and evangelical churches as well as Mormons. During floor debate in the House of Representatives on Friday, opponents proposed a long series of amendments to the bill. Supporters of same-sex marriage called that a delaying tactic and asked how so many amendments appeared so suddenly.
That prompted Representative Fale to stand up and say that was reason enough to oppose the whole bill.
“Mr. Speaker, I couldn’t agree more," Fale said, on the floor of the House. "I couldn’t agree with this entire process from the special session all the way through these amendments right now have not gone through the normal review, are outside the normal process, and have been introduced at the very last moment.”
Representative Bob McDermott is a Catholic and a Republican who helped to lead the opposition. He says some of the amendments grew out of meetings with religious leaders and their representatives, including some from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Their attorneys have been here consulting with us on the religious exemptions," McDermott told KUER. "Their attorneys have talked to us. They’ve been very active.”
Both McDermott and Fale say Owen Matsunaga, an LDS stake president from Oahu who is also an attorney, was involved in meetings with legislators. Stake president, of course, is an unpaid volunteer position, and Matsunaga is not registered as a lobbyist for the church.
Matsunaga says the church’s role in trying to influence the legislature was a local effort. In an e-mail to KUER, he confirms the church did make an attorney available for meetings with legislators. Neither Matsunaga nor church leaders in Salt Lake City were available for a recorded interview.
The one substantive change that was made in the bill was the addition of language from Connecticut’s state law to strengthen the so-called religious exemption. It’s meant to protect religious leaders from lawsuits if they refuse to perform same-sex marriages or accommodate them in their facilities. But Representative Fale says even that is problematic.
“They’re saying, well, the Connecticut language is really strong language in regards to exemptions," Fale says. "But the Hawaii state constitution is not the same as the Connecticut constitution. The Hawaii state constitution isn’t as old, doesn’t have the same history that the Connecticut constitution does, and there are significant differences and we’ve never been given the opportunity to explore what those differences are.”
After a debate that went late into the evening on Friday, the House voted to pass the Hawaii Marriage Equality Act 30 to 19. Since it was amended in the House, it has to go back to the state Senate for one more vote.
Governor Neil Abercrombie has promised to immediately sign the bill into law upon its passage.