by Paul M. Saito
Governor Neil Abercrombie has signed into law the Hawaii Marriage Equality Act of 2013, which defines marriage in Hawaii as between “individuals without regard to gender.” Hawaii is the 15th state to give same-sex couples the right to marry. The law goes into effect December 2.
A special session of the Hawaii Legislature convened on October 28 to consider same-sex marriage in the state. Senate Bill 1 proposed to define marriage in Hawaii as between “two individuals without regard to gender.” The special session employed an unusual procedure that allowed over 55 hours of public testimony from over 1,000 individuals. Over 24,000 written submittals also were considered. Both the House and the Senate approved the bill and sent it to Governor Abercrombie for his signature.
Hawaii’s new law gives same-sex couples the same rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities under the state’s laws as couples in an opposite-sex marriage. All federal rights, benefits, protections, and obligations also apply based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision invalidating portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act earlier this year. That decision gave states the authority to define marriage and recognize same-sex marriages. The decision requires the federal government to recognize marriages as defined by the states. Accordingly, Hawaii’s recognition of same-sex marriages gives same-sex couples the same rights, benefits, and obligations that opposite-sex couples have under both state and federal law.
Hawaii’s new law makes it easy for couples in a Hawaii reciprocal beneficiary relationship or civil union to convert that relationship to a marriage. They just need to apply for a Hawaii marriage license and have their union or relationship converted to a marriage through a solemnization ceremony—a ceremony similar to those performed by clergy and judges in opposite-sex marriages. Couples who aren’t in a civil union or reciprocal beneficiary relationship can simply apply for a marriage license under the same restrictions and requirements as opposite-sex couples.
The new law also recognizes same-sex marriages from other states: “Marriages between two individuals regardless of gender and legal where contracted shall be held legal in the courts of this State.” The law defines “husband,” “wife,” “widow,” “widower,” and similar terms to be gender-neutral under other state laws.
Further, the law allows religious organizations to decline to perform solemnization ceremonies or to allow solemnization activities on their property, and it exempts religious organizations from the requirements of the law’s same-sex provisions.
Bottom line for employers. Starting December 2, all benefits provided to opposite-sex married couples must be provided to couples in a same-sex marriage. You also should be aware that employees who are married in other states that recognize same-sex marriages are recognized as married under Hawaii and federal laws for all purposes related to employment benefits and benefits administration.
We will have more detailed coverage of this new law in an upcoming issue of Hawaii Employment Law Letter.