In announcing his support of same-sex marriage two weeks ago, President Barack Obama reinvigorated a vexed debate. Locally, the wrangle has been deadlocked following the contentious legalization of civil unions and subsequent federal court challenge in January. (The plaintiffs are a lesbian couple who, after a failed attempt to gain a marriage license, accused the state of violating their 14th Amendment rights.)
In February, Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s declared his support for the couple’s claim, although the attorney general’s office is still defending the state. Now, Obama’s statement again brings to the fore the constituency of local gay rights advocates who refuse to settle for what they call a discriminatory legal status.
“My hope is that President Obama’s statement will cause people to…see that those couples deserve the dignity of being allowed to call themselves married,” said John D’Amato, the local lawyer who brought the lawsuit. With this year’s implementaion of SB 232, legalizing civil unions, Honolulu Weekly published a cover story that explored whether civil unions are actually “civil.” In the story, D’Amato answered that question with a resounding “no,” emphasizing that couples joined solely by such unions were excluded from a laundry list of basic federal rights and benefits.
“It is a clear statement that ‘separate but equal’ laws like Hawaii’s civil union law do not give gay and lesbian families the recognition and acceptance in the community which they deserve and to which they are entitled,” D’Amato told the Weekly last week, adding, “I think the voices of President Obama and Governor Abercrombie can only have a positive effect on the debate about same sex marriage in Hawaii.”
Mitch Kahle, an activist and spokesperson for Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church, commented that Obama’s support for gay marriage is “long overdue.” Some advocates speculate that Obama’s move has marked a pivotal juncture in their efforts to establish marriage–and not just civil unions–as a universal birthright.