As members of the state House vote Friday on final passage of a same-sex marriage bill, their colleagues in the Senate will be watching closely.
On Tuesday, the House Finance and Judiciary committees amended the Senate bill (SB1, HD1) to further protect churches and other religious organizations from the threat of lawsuits if they rent their facilities to the public.
Under the original version of the bill (SB1), churches would have to rent their facilities to gay couples if they made those facilities available to anyone outside of their congregations. The amended version of the House bill protects churches from the threat of lawsuits or government penalties if facilities or services are denied to same-sex couples.
The House bill states the following:
"...a religious organization or nonprofit organization operated, supervised, or controlled by a religious organization shall not be required to provide goods, services, or its facilities or grounds for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage that is in violation of its religious beliefs or faith."
The bill goes on to say that if a church or religious group fails to provide goods, services or facilities for the solemnization of marriage, they "…shall be immune from any fine, penalty, injunction, administrative proceeding, or any other legal or administrative liability for the failure or refusal."
Although some Hawaii lawmakers have expressed deep concern over weakening Hawaii’s public accommodations law, some senators say it may be the best compromise that satisfies same-sex supporters and opponents.
"This looks like it strikes a very good balance in terms of what both sides have been requesting, and the feeling is now that we certainly want to see something passed," said Sen. Will Espero, a west Oahu Democrat.
The House version of the same-sex marriage bill is modeled after the law in Connecticut, which legalized gay marriage in 2008.
Majority Leader Sen. Brickwood Galuteria believes the Connecticut model may stretch the limits of what his colleagues are willing to accept.
"Connecticut may be about as far as the Senate would possibly go,” Galuteria told KITV4. “But, it's probably going to be what's sent over to us. So, we'll take a look at that."
On Thursday, same-sex marriage opponents in the House tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill further. However every attempt, including two amendments that sought a public vote on the issue, was turned back. Representatives eventually approved the version that passed the House Finance and Judiciary committees by a vote of 30-18.
Garret Hashimoto, state chairman of the Hawaii Christian Coalition, said on Wednesday he’s satisfied with the public accommodations protection afforded to churches under the House version of the same-sex marriage bill. Nevertheless, he's concerned about church schools being forced to accept children of activist same-sex couples.
"I would think the churches would accept them, but they would have to follow the guidelines of the school and the church,” Hashimoto said.
Still unknown is what may happen to a same-sex marriage bill if Senate votes down the House version. In that scenario, the two competing versions would go to conference committee where lawmakers attempt to reach common ground.
"I think it's problematic if you have to go to conference, because now the issues come up and that goes for other bills as well,” said Sen. Clarence Nishihara, a Pearl City Democrat. “Whenever you have a conference, sometimes things fail right?"