Opinion: Same sex marriage in Hawaii creates potential impact and concerns for traditional religious institutions
By Steve Morgan
On Sept. 9, Governor Neil Abercrombie announced that a special session of our state legislature will take place for the purpose of creating a bill to legalize gay marriage in the state of Hawaii. The Governor’s move comes upon the heals of a landmark ruling in June in which the Supreme Court declared part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, thus claiming that same-sex married couples are entitled by federal law to the same benefits and recognitions as heterosexual couples.
The intention of the governor is to see a same-sex marriage bill passed by November so that same-sex marriages taking place in Hawaii can be established in a timely manner in order to receive federal benefits for the upcoming year. At this time, Gov. Abercrombie feels confident that the Hawaii legislature will support a gay marriage bill and has proposed a special session to begin Oct. 28.
The proposed bill in its entirety can be found at the website linked here.
I am particularly concerned with the language of this bill in regard to exemptions allowed for religious institutions. In summary, the religious exemption clause states that religious organizations will not be required to perform same-sex marriages or provide facilities for such if the religious institution meets all of the following criterion:
1. The religious facility is regularly used by the religious organization for its religious purposes.
2. The religious organization restricts use of the religious facility to its own members.
3. The religious organization does not operate the religious facility as a for-profit business.
I have concerns in regard to all three of these exemptions as the current language reads. My concerns are as follow:
In regard to exemption #1. What is the definition of “religious purposes?” The first thing that comes to my mind is an organization such as the Salvation Army. Much of the Salvation Army’s efforts extend beyond what some may consider “religious purposes” including social aid, disaster relief, food and clothing assistance to the poor. The Salvation Army’s new facility in Kapolei provides an array of community services made available to the public including health and fitness facilities. The Salvation Army is not entirely unique. It is common for religious institutions to cover a broad spectrum of community needs. Are such efforts of these religious institutions considered within the domain of “religious purposes?” For most of us, our religious beliefs encompass all aspects of our lives, not just the time spent in religious study and worship.
What are the intended boundaries of the language in this bill as it defines “religious purposes?”
In regard to exemption #2, which states that the exemption to perform same sex marriages is allowed if the religious organization restricts use of its religious facility to its own members.
This also raises questions. In regard to traditional religious services, many if not a majority of the religious institutions in Hawaii have an open door policy allowing anyone to attend religious services or other events within their facility whether or not they are members of the given religious institution. In fact there are many religious institutions that have no membership at all.
As previously mentioned, many of the services provided by these institutions are intended to serve the general public.
In regard to exemption #3, which requires the religious institution to be a non-profit organization. While this seems reasonable, there may be a time in the not too far future when the definitions and demands made by the federal government upon those seeking non-profit status may conflict with what would be considered morally acceptable for many traditional religious institutions. Current federal income tax law does not explicitly address or proscribe discrimination by charitable organizations. There is a strong push however to see this changed especially in regard to discrimination against sexual orientation. The exemptions included within the proposed Hawaii bill, in which exempt religious institutions from being required to accommodate same-sex marriages, could possibly become demands within the definition of “Federal Non-Profit Status.” Without the “non-profit” recognition, the religious institution would not be entitled to the exemptions within this clause.
The bottom line is that regardless of what Governor Abercrombie tells us, this bill fails to adequately protect the unique nature of our traditional religious institutions.