HONOLULU – Some same-sex couples plan to get married as soon as they're able to do so legally in Hawaii on Monday.
A ceremony for six couples at the Sheraton Waikiki is one of several wedding events planned soon after 12:01 a.m., when a new law allows gay couples to marry in the state.
Couples who want to get married as early as possible Monday won't have to wait until Hawaii's Health Department opens its doors at 8 a.m. Same-sex couples can begin applying for marriage licenses at 12:01 a.m., department spokeswoman Janice Okubo said.
Okubo said the state's marriage license application site will add options for bride and bride, groom and groom, or spouse and spouse.
The licenses can then be approved by any state-certified license agent around the state, Okubo said. The agents operate around the islands, including in resorts on Maui, the Big Island and Lanai. Okubo said the agents make their own arrangements and can quickly approve licenses through the online system.
Hawaii started the national gay marriage discussion in 1990 when two women applied for a marriage license, leading to a court battle and a 1993 Hawaii Supreme Court decision that said their rights to equal protection were violated by not letting them marry.
The case helped prompt Congress to pass the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which denied federal benefits to gay couples. Part of the law was struck down earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court, which led Gov. Neil Abercrombie to call the special session that produced Hawaii's gay marriage law.
An additional 14 states and the District of Columbia already allow same-sex marriage. Illinois was the 16th state to legalize it, and the law takes effect June 1.
Hotels and wedding planners across Hawaii expect to benefit from an estimated $217 million tourism boost over the next three years, with same-sex couples from other states seeking destination weddings.
The Sheraton's event shows that major hotels realize the business potential of the gay wedding market, said Honolulu Pride Chairman Michael Golojuch Jr., one of the event's organizers. "If you don't reach out to us, you're turning away money," he said. "We support companies that support us."
He said that since the governor signed the gay marriage bill, he's been noticing ads from the wedding industry targeting the gay community. But he has yet to see any marketing efforts from the state's tourism authority.
After the bill signing, Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO Mike McCartney said the agency expects gay marriage to have a positive effect on tourism.
For now, marketing efforts focus on regions and promoting the experience of a Hawaii vacation, an HTA spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Holding the ceremony at the Sheraton and donating the event space is both the right thing to do and a good business move, said Kelly Sanders, area managing director for Starwood Hotels and Resorts' four Waikiki properties, including the Sheraton.
"I think, overall, marriage and weddings is a key part of what we do in Hawaii," he said. "When you look at the GLBT market, the biggest thing is they need to know they're welcome. Hawaii is an all-inclusive destination."
The Rev. Libby Kelson-Fulcher of Big Island wedding planning company Weddings A La Heart said she's planning a Dec. 26 beachfront wedding for a lesbian couple from Salem, Ore., and is working on booking other gay weddings for January.
"I have a feeling 2014 is really going to be a busy year," she said. "I think this law is going to be an incredible boon for Hawaii."
When Keola Akana and Ethan Wung are married at the Sheraton on Monday, it will be more than a year after their 150-guest wedding. They threw a wedding for their civil union at an east Honolulu Episcopal church in July 2012.
"We didn't get federal rights, only state rights," he said. "We're going to be attaining all the rights our federal government, our country, offers. It's important that we mark this. ... We'll celebrate anniversaries for our July wedding and our December marriage."