Tuesday, January 30, 2001
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Posted on: Tuesday, January 30, 2001

Civil union bill just, but must not be distraction

When the 1997 Hawaii Legislature set in motion a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage, it created a moral — if not legal — obligation to same-sex couples in the Islands.

That obligation was to create a system in which same-sex couples have access to the same rights and obligations as married couples. While the social climate of the state was strongly against allowing same-sex couples to become legally married, there was substantial sentiment for equality in treatment before the law.

A "reciprocal beneficiaries" law was passed that granted certain benefits to registered same-sex couples. That law became the object of an immediate lawsuit by private employers in the Islands. They warned that a provision on health benefits opened the door far wider than lawmakers had intended.

That case has since been settled, so that private companies would not have to pay health benefits to reciprocal beneficiaries under the law. Other benefits remain in place.

But the law is far short of full equality for same-sex couples, the issue that drove the Hawaii Supreme Court to rule in favor of same-sex couples in the original marriage case. The matter of equal treatment remains unsettled.

A bill introduced by Reps. Eric Hamakawa and Ed Case seeks to cure that flaw by creating a system of "civil unions" that would mirror the law governing married couples.

As a matter of equity, this bill should become law. But it is likely to become the flashpoint of another extended debate similar to the one that surrounded the same-sex marriage fight. That battle distracted the Legislature for several sessions, consuming vast amounts of time and energy that should have been devoted to other matters.

The Legislature simply cannot afford to go through that again. The bill deserves a hearing and a clear, decisive yes or no. If the answer is no, which is entirely possible, it will be a signal to the civil rights community that it has some heavy lobbying and public education work to do. The plain fact is that this kind of legislation will not become law until the community, as well as the Legislature, is ready for it.

It is only a matter of time before Hawaii recognizes the fundamental unfairness of a system that grants privileges and rights to one segment of the community but not another. In the meantime, the Legislature must not let itself become bogged down in endless debate and hang-ringing over this issue. There is too much work to be done.

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