By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Capitol Bureau Chief
House Judiciary Chairman Eric Hamakawa and Rep. Ed Case yesterday introduced a bill to allow "civil unions" granting gay and lesbian couples all the legal rights of married couples.
It isnt clear how much support there is in the House for the measure, and some legislators dont want to go near the controversial proposal this year.
Hamakawa, D-3rd (S. Hilo, Puna), said he would have to discuss the issue with fellow Democrats and colleagues on the Judiciary Committee before he could say even whether the bill would be granted a hearing.
Case, D-23rd (Manoa), said the House had become somewhat more conservative on social issues in recent years, and speculated that the bill would have an easier time passing the state Senate. Legislators were uncertain yesterday whether any senators would introduce a similar measure.
One legislator who would rather avoid the whole issue is Senate President Robert Bunda, D-22nd (Wahiawa, Waialua, Sunset Beach). Bunda said civil unions arent a priority for the Senate, and recalled that the same-sex marriage debate split Democrats.
"We discussed and debated that issue long and hard, and it kind of divided the majority," he said. "I dont want to see that kind of division in the Senate. Lets not bring out issues that do that."
Mike Gabbard, chairman of the Alliance for Traditional Marriage and Values, said civil unions would be same-sex marriage by a different name, and called it "an insult" to voters who voted against legalizing same-sex marriage in 1998.
"Were not discriminating. Were not going into peoples bedrooms we already tolerate homosexual relationships. But what were not willing to do is give societys stamp of approval to homosexual relationships, which is what theyre seeking," Gabbard said.
Case believes that the Legislature committed itself, however, in 1997 to provide same-sex couples with some of the benefits that married couples enjoy. Although legislators passed a reciprocal beneficiaries law that extended dozens of legal benefits to registered same-sex couples, Case said lawmakers should do more.
The original debate was triggered by three same-sex couples who sued to get the state to permit them legally to marry. The issue preoccupied the Legislature for years in the 1990s, and before it was over the controversy had angered thousands of voters and helped oust some Democrats from office in the 1996 elections.
In 1997 lawmakers approved two bills in a compromise meant finally to resolve the contentious same-sex marriage issue.
One measure was a proposed constitutional amendment authorizing the state Legislature to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples. The voters approved that amendment in the 1998 elections, assuring that same-sex marriages would not be legally recognized in Hawaii.
The second bill granted to same-sex couples about 50 of the rights and benefits of married couples, including family health insurance coverage, joint real property ownership, inheritance rights and survivorship benefits.
Gov. Ben Cayetano allowed the reciprocal beneficiaries bill to become law without his signature, but a group of major Hawaii employers sued a week later to challenge the law.
Employers worried that the law could increase their health insurance costs dramatically by forcing them to buy coverage for employees reciprocal beneficiaries. The case was settled later that year when the state and several Hawaii companies agreed private companies would not be required to provide health coverage to reciprocal beneficiaries under the new law.
Most of the other benefits granted to same-sex couples are still in effect, and about 400 couples have registered under the law. Reciprocal beneficiary couples do not, however, lack hundreds of the rights and benefits of married couples under state law.
For example, members of same-sex couples cannot file joint tax returns, and dont have the same survivors rights to their partners pensions.
The bill introduced by Case and Hamakawa would repeal and replace the 1997 reciprocal beneficiaries law with a new legal relationship, "civil unions." This would be a legal contract between partners of the same or opposite sex, and would grant them all of the legal rights and obligations now enjoyed by married couples.
That would also include alimony and similar responsibilities.
Bunda said that while the Democratic Partys Central Committee had passed a resolution pushing for civil unions, there doesnt seem to be a united movement for it. He said party officials didnt bring up the issue when they met with him this week.
Advertiser staff writer Lynda Arakawa contributed to this report.
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