By HERBERT A. SAMPLE Associated Press Writer
(Editor's note: We found this October 10 AP article on newspaper websites from over 120 locations across the country. It also appears in the UK Guardian and even in a Turkish newspaper. Where does it NOT appear? Why Hawaii of course...)
HONOLULU (AP) -- In the last 50 years, religious conservatives have scored few victories in Hawaii. They did manage to oust a half-dozen pro-gay marriage lawmakers and lead a successful drive for a constitutional amendment to reject same-sex marriages a decade ago.
Beyond that, they've had little influence in a state known for its moderate to liberal leanings.
Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders hope to push Hawaii politics rightward, preparing an election-year effort in 2010 to organize their parishioners into voting blocks that can help elect like-minded candidates. And they are hoping to use the issue of civil unions to get them there.
The state Legislature next year is expected to reconsider a proposal to allow gay and lesbian couples to form civil unions. The measure, which is on hold in the state Senate, generated some of the largest rallies ever seen at the normally placid Capitol earlier this year.
"Conservatives (almost) never win here," said Garret Hashimoto, chairman of the Hawaii Christian Coalition. But "we won big in 1998, and this issue is coming up again in 2010. So hopefully, 1998 will again surface in 2010."
Civil union supporters say they have no qualms with evangelicals trying to improve their political influence, but contend that voter opinions on civil unions and gay marriage have turned more favorable since 1998. They cite the support of religious leaders in Hawaii, including several, mostly mainline Christian churches.
"We're now at a point where the mainstream position that's supported by the majority, both here in Hawaii and the whole country, is civil unions," said Alan Spector of the Family Equality Coalition, which backs equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians.
Still, Christian conservatives sense an opportunity and they are coalescing to take advantage.
"We don't want to tell people who to vote for," said Bishop Larry Silva of the Catholic Diocese of Hawaii. "But we do want to talk about moral principles and lead them through that discussion of moral principles to decide who best then can express those principles for us as a leader."
Federal tax law prevents churches from openly endorsing candidates, and pastors shied away from discussing their preferences.
But intended or not, it is clear which gubernatorial candidate their efforts will most benefit: Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, the leading contender for the Republican nomination.
Aiona has made no secret of his strong religious convictions nor his conservative views on social issues, including opposition to civil unions, gay marriage and abortion. He has attended religious rallies and in 2004 told a prayer gathering that "Hawaii belongs to Jesus." He also has insisted his faith will not interfere with his duties.
U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who intends to run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, supports abortion rights, civil unions and gay marriage. A potential primary election foe, Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, has refused to reveal his positions on those issues.
In recent years, the number and popularity of evangelical Protestant churches have risen, much as it has in the continental United States, said George Tanabe, a religion professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii.
Their political prowess was noticed in February when they and allied groups rallied several thousand civil union opponents at the state Capitol. The bill would have given gay and lesbian couples the same legal rights under state law as married couples.
Evangelical leaders fervently oppose the bill but also welcome its reconsideration by the Legislature, hoping the ire of their parishioners will carry into the voting booth months later.
"If we allow people that don't have a strong moral character to be in office and make those decisions on laws and issues, we will suffer the consequences," said Rev. George Nagato, superintendent of the Hawaii Assemblies of God Inc. "So we need to do something now."
The conservatives are eying Hawaii's 235,000 Catholics and tens of thousands who attend evangelical Protestant services, including mega-churches New Hope Oahu and Hope Chapel Nanakuli, and the state's 70 Assemblies of God churches.
The goal of the effort - dubbed "The 80/80 Vision" - is to convince 80 percent of Christian churchgoers to register to vote and then persuade 80 percent of them to vote "Christian values" on abortion, gay rights, euthanasia and other issues.
If successful, the bloc will be instrumental in a state where 456,000 voted last November, said Frances Oda, chairman of Hawaii Family Forum, a nonprofit research group with ties to the Hawaii Catholic Conference.
The Voice of Truth ministry at Honolulu's First Assembly of God church was organized last year and hopes to prod parishioners next year into registering to vote and provide them with information on candidate positions, much of it from Oda's group.
But Voice of Truth lay leader, Noela Nance, said the church will not try to convince parishioners who hold varying views on public policy issues to vote for a particular candidate.
"It's kind of like giving you the menu at a restaurant and then you decide what you want to eat," she said.
An early test of this effort next September could be Honolulu Councilman Gary Okino's Democratic primary challenge against House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro. Okino opposed the civil unions legislation, which Oshiro sponsored.
The conservatives' efforts however may "wake up" civil union proponents to get more politically involved, said Rabbi Peter Schaktman of Temple Emanu-El, a supporter of civil unions and gay marriage. "It may prove," Schaktman said, "to be ultimately their undoing."
© 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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