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Pioneering case seeking the right to marry for same-sex couples in Hawaii


Lambda Legal entered this case seeking marriage equality as an amicus in 1993 before Hawaii’s highest court. The court was the first ever to rule that excluding same-sex couples from marriage was discrimination. It sent the case back to trial court to determine whether the state could justify this discrimination. We joined as counsel and prepared for trial. In 1996 the trial judge rejected the state’s argument and agreed that denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples was unjustifiable. The state appealed, while antigay forces from other states spent millions of dollars in Hawaii to support the first successful constitutional amendment specifically targeting gay relationships, which voters passed in 1998. The next year the state’s high court ruled that the constitutional amendment prevented it from affirming the lower court’s order to give marriages licenses to same-sex couples. But the Hawaii legislature passed a landmark “Reciprocal Beneficiaries” law that created some of the protections same-sex couples could not access through marriage.


Although this case gave us the first high court ruling in favor of marriage equality and led to some favorable changes in Hawaii’s law, it also unleashed one of the most profound examples of backlash in our movement’s history. In the midst of our trial work in 1996, the United States Congress passed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, declaring in its legislative history that it “was motivated by the Hawaiian lawsuit.”

Lambda Legal’s Impact

This historic case marked the first time a state high court ruled that excluding same-sex couples from marriage is discrimination. In Hawaii it led to passage of the state’s “Reciprocal Beneficiaries” law, which offers some of the rights and benefits of marriage. Beyond Hawaii’s shores, the case launched one of the largest and most significant chapters in our movement for equality. Our work on this case also led to the beginnings of a national marriage coalition and the original Freedom to Marry Day (now Week).

    • 1993 Baehr v. Lewin: Hawaii’s high court issues first-of-a-kind ruling that a barrier to marriage is discrimination, launching the freedom to marry movement.
    • 1996 Baehr v. Miike (new state defendant): Trial court conducts a full trial, complete with expert witnesses testifying on the state’s reasons for denying marriage, and finds that those reasons lack merit, meaning that the same-sex couples are entitled to marriage licenses.
    • 1998 Hawaii amends its constitution with regard to marriage by exempting same-sex couples from protection of equality guarantee, giving legislature the power to define marriage as limited to a man and a woman.
    • 1999 Baehr v.Miike: Hawaii’s high court rules that Hawaii’s constitution no longer protects lesbian and gay individuals with regard to their freedom to marry.