Discrimination Doesn’t Fit Us

By the time you read this, Gov. Neil Abercrombie may well have signed the civil unions bill, making Hawaii the seventh state to extend to gay and lesbian couples the rights and responsibilities enjoyed by married heterosexual couples.

There will be some gnashing of teeth at the bill’s signing, some doomsday talk of God’s vengeance against a society that would legally countenance such an abomination, some head-shaking and tongue-wagging over the decline of American civilization.

But little compared to what we heard 18 years ago when the Hawaii State Supreme Court found our heterosexuals-only marriage law discriminatory, and far less than we heard last session when two gubernatorial candidates and a dozen other politicians pandered to the worst instincts of the redshirted moralists of the religious right.

Those two would-be governors, Mufi Hannemann and Duke Aiona, lost their races by staggering margins of 22 and 17 percentage points respectively to Abercrombie, who promised from the campaign’s outset that, unlike his veto-prone Republican predecessor, he would sign a civil unions bill.

A majority of Republican legislative challengers in 2010 made “No to HB444” part of their campaign rhetoric. It gained them nothing: a pickup of one seat, from seven to eight in the 51-member House of Representatives; the loss of one seat, from two to one, in the 25-member Senate.

And state Rep. Blake Oshiro, the consistently cool, patient and courageous legislative champion of HB444, vanquished both Democratic and Republican challenges by civil unions naysayers.

Many deserve credit for the bill’s passage: Oshiro certainly, the 30 members of the House who joined Oshiro in voting for the bill, the 18 members of the Senate who approved the House version and sent it up to the fifth floor. Then there are those who marched and waved and lobbied tirelessly on its behalf.

And 18 years ago there were the three members of the Hawaii State Supreme Court who in Baehr vs. Lewin held that the state had to demonstrate “a compelling state interest” in denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The decision, written by Associate Justice Steven Levinson, cited the “equal protection clause” of the Hawaii state constitution that bars discrimination on the basis of “race, religion, sex or ancestry.” The petitioners in Baehr v. Lewin and the State Supreme Court put Hawaii far ahead of the rest of the nation in responding to gay and lesbian demands for equal treatment.

There was, of course, an instant and at times vicious reaction. Conservative pastors, elders and priests around the state decried same-sex marriage from their pulpits. Their parishioners confronted legislators in their offices and in 1998 succeeded in getting a constitutional amendment passed that gave the Legislature power to define “marriage” as between a man and a woman. Thus, it took us 18 years to get to “civil unions.”

But it was inevitable. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation – or any other reason, for that matter – never fit in Hawaii. In large measure because of the culture of the Islands’ original inhabitants, intolerance is simply not in Hawaii’s DNA. Our diversity hasn’t allowed it.

What those pastors, priests and elders failed to realize in the 1990s – and some of them today – is that their religion runs parallel with a civil religion, a civil religion with texts that include the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Constitution’s 19th Amendment, the civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965, and Title IX. Over two centuries of struggle, defeat and triumph, these texts have taken the ideal of equality and extended it from propertied white males to African-Americans and women and, however inadequately at times, to us all.

A few lines in Leviticus pale in comparison.

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