Hawaii Senate approves civil unions, House votes soon

The mood among supporters of a bill to allow civil unions in Hawaii is “Imua!”—the Hawaiian word for “Forward!” said State Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser. The bill passed the state senate Friday, January 22, by a vote of 18 to 7.

Gary Hooser
Gary Hooser

The mood among supporters of a bill to allow civil unions in Hawaii is “Imua!”—the Hawaiian word for “Forward!” said State Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser. The bill passed the state senate Friday, January 22, by a vote of 18 to 7.

“I’m very pleased that 18 members feel that equality is important and have voted to pass this bill,” said Hooser, a Democrat and sponsor of the legislation. “It sends a strong message to our community and people everywhere that this is an important issue.”

Tambry Young, co-chair of Equality Hawaii, one of the organizations spearheading the push for civil unions, agreed.

“We’re very proud the Senate did the right thing,” said Young. “An overwhelming majority stood up for all families in Hawaii.”

The bill is far from law, however. Although a version of the legislation passed the House 2009 session, the Senate version must go back to the House for a vote during the new session.

The Senate version, unlike the House bill, includes a statement that, “It is not the Legislature’s intent to revise the definition or eligibility requirements of marriage.” It also expands civil union eligibility to opposite-sex couples.

Hooser said he hopes the strong support in the Senate for the bill will give the House the “confidence” to approve it.

He also praised the “incredible work” of LGBT advocates in building a broad-based coalition in support of the legislation, including church groups, labor groups, and students.

Oddly, the Senate bill language indicates the bill’s effective date as January 1, 2010—something Hooser tried to amend Friday. There had been some question of whether the back-date would invalidate the bill or make it easier for Republican Governor Linda Lingle to veto, claiming it would provide no time for state officials to prepare for implementation. But the state’s Attorney General said the date would not invalidate the measure, and some supporters resisted the idea of delaying the measure for an amendment.

Hawaii was the first state to push for legal recognition of same-sex marriages. That was in 1993. But, after the state Supreme Court ruled that denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples was unconstitutional, the state legislature moved quickly to ask voters to give it the authority to amend the constitution. After voters did that, in 1998, the legislature amended the state constitution to ban recognition for any marriage other than for straight couples.

The state did, however, create the status of “reciprocal beneficiaries” in 1997, to give a limited set of benefits to couples who were unable to marry, including hospital visitation rights and the right to inherit from each other in the absence of a will. Civil unions would, however, give couples all the state benefits of marriage except the name.

The federal Defense of Marriage Act, which passed Congress in 1996, was seen as a direct response to the effort in Hawaii to win recognition for same-sex marriages.

Hawaii’s past still has lessons for the present. Marriage equality advocates, such as Evan Wolfson, executive director of the national Freedom to Marry organization, see strong parallels between the Hawaii Supreme Court cases and the current federal trial over the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, which limits marriage in that state to unions of one man and one woman.

“The presentations, cross-examination, and bottom-line conclusions [in the Proposition 8 trial] all uncannily echoed what unfolded in the Hawaii courtroom in 1996,” wrote Wolfson on January 21 in the Huffington Post.

The current Hawaii effort has not proceeded without a struggle. In the days leading up to Friday’s vote, advocates for and against the bill rallied at the state capitol and elsewhere on the islands.

Bishop Clarence Silva of Honolulu sent out a letter in mid-January urging congregants to ask their legislators to vote against the civil unions measure. He also urged them to join a January 17 rally sponsored by the conservative Hawai’i Family Forum. In his letter, Silva wrote, “not all discrimination is unjust.”

A civil union, he said, was simply “ a euphemism for same-sex marriage.”

Republican State Senator Sam Slom, who has been a vocal opponent of the bill, was the only senator to speak against it before the final vote. He, too, tried to paint civil unions as redefining marriage, reported Tony Wagner, the Human Rights Campaign’s Western Regional Field Director, on the HRC blog.

The Hawaii House could take up the bill as early as next week. House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro said he will be meeting with the Democratic caucus on Monday, January 25, in order to decide on a course of action.

Although there has been some talk that the House would not vote unless it was assured of a veto-proof supermajority, Oshiro said he would try to push for a vote.

“We owe that to the public as well as to the advocates who have been pushing for it,” he explained. “I’m hoping some of the representatives see that fear-mongering is no reason not to do this.”

Young said she and her group will continue to talk with House members and explain to them the “irrational” views of the opposition. “We’re confident we still have a lot of support on the merits of the issue,” she asserted.

Although the Senate passed it with a supermajority of two-thirds, the House would need to do so, too, in order to overcome a possible veto from Governor Lingle. The governor has not indicated whether she will sign the bill.

“I hope she recognizes that equality is important,” said Hooser. “I hope she realizes the time is overdue.”

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