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Celebrating the Long Road to Marriage Equality

Last month, HHHRC and the ACLU of Hawaiʻi co-hosted an event in the auditorium of the state capitol to mark the 30th anniversary of Baehr v. Lewin, a case where the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court found that the denial of a marriage license to a lesbian couple, Nina Baehr and Genora Dancel, constituted sex discrimination under the state constitution. The honorees were retired Judge Daniel Foley, who litigated the case on behalf of Baehr and Dancel in the 1990’s; retired Supreme Court Justice Steven Levinson, who wrote the Baehr v. Lewin decision; and Judge Kevin Chang, who ruled in favor of Baehr and Dancel at the trial court level.

The decision had broad national and international ramifications, as noted in the first chapter of Sasha Issenbergʻs The Engagement: America’s Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage, for the next three decades, with President Biden signing the Respect for Marriage Act into law last December.

House Speaker Scott Saiki and Rep. David Tarnas were two of six legislators who voted against a 1997 ballot measure granting the state legislature the authority to prohibit same-sex marriage. Speaker Saiki took a course taught by Foley at the William H. Richardson of Law at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa in the early 1990’s. Rep. Tarnas lost his seat in the 1998 election, returning to the legislature in 2018. He now serves as Chair of the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee.

Sen. Chris Lee, Co-Chair of the legislature’s Equality Caucus, who was a key legislative voice in the 2013 House vote to legalize same-sex marriage, delivered brief remarks. Retired UH Professor Tom Ramsey, a key community organizer for marriage equality with Life Foundation’s Dr. David McEwan, also provided his perspectives on marriage equality and implored those in the audience to be vigilant about the ongoing political assault on LGBTQ people across the nation.

The event received substantial print and broadcast news coverage, including a front-page story in The Honolulu Star-Adverstiser.

HHHRC Grants & Advancement Manager Nikos Leverenz organized the event in collaboration with the ACLU and Speaker Saiki’s office. Last year Leverenz served with Judge Foley on the Speaker’s Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct (CISC), which was convened in the wake of the federal indictment of two high-profile state lawmakers. The CISC issued its Final Report in December, and many of its recommended bills seem likely to be signed into law this session.

Rep. Adrian Tam, HHHRC Board Member and Co-Chair of the legislature’s Equality Caucus, was among the dozen legislators in attendance.

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