HONOLULU (Reuters) - Opponents of Hawaii's new gay marriage law failed in their bid to block implementation of the measure on Thursday when a judge refused to grant a court order preventing marriage licenses from being issued to same-sex couples beginning next month.
The new law, which cleared the Democratic-controlled Legislature on Tuesday and was signed on Wednesday by Democratic Governor Neil Abercrombie, paves the way for gay and lesbian couples to be legally wed in Hawaii starting on December 2.
A Republican legislator and others opposed to the marriage equality law filed a court challenge even before it was passed, seeking a restraining order that would keep it from taking effect.
Circuit Judge Karl Sakamoto in Honolulu had refused to even consider the opponents' motion until the law was enacted, and on Thursday, following an hour of oral arguments from both sides, he denied the request for an injunction.
"After all the legal complexities of the court's analysis, the court will conclude that same-sex marriage in Hawaii is legal," Sakamoto said.
The new law made Hawaii the 15th U.S. state to legalize nuptials for gay and lesbian couples, rolling back a 1994 statute that defined marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman.
Republican Bob McDermott, a member of Hawaii's House of Representatives leading the effort to block the measure, said it conflicts with a 1998 voter-passed constitutional amendment vesting the state Legislature with authority to limit marriages to heterosexual couples.
One of six House Republicans to vote against the gay marriage bill last week, McDermott cited ballot information circulated at the time of 1998 amendment explaining that its passage would empower legislators to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples "only."
Therefore, McDermott argued, that was the intent of voters who approved it, and that was how the court should interpret it, despite the fact that word "only" did not appear in the ballot question itself, nor in the amendment as enacted.
Attorney Jack Dwyer, who represented gay marriage opponents in court, told Reuters after the hearing that difference between the ballot information and the ballot question itself amounted to a "bait and switch."
The state attorney general's office countered there was nothing in the constitutional amendment precluding legislators from extending marriage rights to same-sex couples.
The state further argued that seeking to interpret the amendment based on misleading pre-election information amounted to trying to rewrite the state constitution to suit opponents' preferences.
The judge found that the wording of the amendment was unambiguous in giving the Legislature discretion to legalize gay marriage.
Moreover, he said the state constitution grants lawmakers broad powers to legislate on domestic relations, including matrimony, said Anne Lopez, a special assistant to Attorney General David Louie.
Dwyer said gay marriage opponents have not decided whether to press ahead with their case.
(Reporting by Treena Shapiro in Honolulu Writing and additional reporting from Los Angeles By Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)