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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 20, 2004

Bill to allow civil unions may be stalled in House

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

A bill that would give gay couples the opportunity to receive the same rights and privileges as married couples through civil unions appears to be dead at the Legislature this year, despite more than three hours of impassioned testimony last night from both sides of the debate.

More than 100 people packed a House Judiciary Committee hearing last night on a bill that would allow gay couples a legal status granting many of the same rights and responsibilities as marriage.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Today is the deadline for bills referred to more than one committee to make it out of their first panels. House Bill 1024 received a dual referral to the Judiciary and Finance committees. But with only five of the 15 members of the Judiciary Committee present when testimony ended about 10:30 last night, the committee lacked a quorum necessary to take a formal vote on the bill.

House Judiciary Chairman Eric Hamakawa, D-3rd (Hilo, Kea'au, Mountain View), deferred a vote on the issue indefinitely and said afterward that it will be up to next year's Legislature to decide whether to take the matter up again..

Theoretically, Hamakawa or Judiciary Vice Chairman Blake Oshiro, D-33rd (Halawa, 'Aiea, Pearlridge), could ask House Speaker Calvin Say to waive the 48-hour rule for meeting notices so that a committee meeting could be held before today's 6 p.m. House floor session. But Hamakawa's decision to defer indefinitely, as well as his comments following the meeting, make that unlikely.

William Woods, executive director for the Gay and Lesbian Education and Advocacy Foundation, said after the meeting he is holding out hope that he and other gay rights advocates will be able to persuade Hamakawa and the Judiciary Committee to hold a vote on it tomorrow.

More than 100 people packed the committee room to testify on the bill, which was introduced by Hamakawa and Oshiro and was a holdover from last session when it failed to receive a hearing.

A majority of those who showed up last night supported House Bill 1024, but a small protest was held outside the room by opponents of same-sex unions.

Woods said the bill does not allow same-sex couples the opportunity to marry, but does give them more rights than they have now. "It is clearly just another governmental status in addition to marriage affording some level of recognition, rights, benefits and responsibilities," Woods said.

Eduardo Hernandez said civil union is not about marriage. "This bill asks for equal civil rights," he said.

Ward Stewart said he has been together with his partner since 1956. "We only asked that we be treated as citizens," he said.

Those who opposed the bill, who were in the minority among those testifying in person, said civil unions for gay people are no different than same-sex marriage, an issue that had been resolved in 1998 when voters decided on a constitutional amendment not to support gay marriage.

"This is just a different approach to justify same-sex marriage," said Savali Tagovailoa. The state should try to make improvements to the 1997 reciprocal benefits bill if it wants to provide more privileges to gay couples, she said.

Opponents , led by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard Tamayo, D-42nd (Waipahu, Honouliuli, 'Ewa), also held signs in protest outside the third-floor committee room.

"The point is, they have brought this up for many years in a row," Tamayo said.

The Judiciary Committee chose to take on the bill, which did not get a hearing when introduced last year, as the same-sex marriage issue heats up on the Mainland. Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the state's ban on gay marriages was unconstitutional. President Bush called that decision "troubling" and suggested he might propose a U.S. constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages.

In San Francisco, city officials have issued more than 2,500 marriage licenses to gay couples in the past week in open defiance of state law. Yesterday, San Francisco filed suit against the state of California challenging its prohibitions on same-sex marriages on constitutional grounds.

The bill heard in Honolulu last night would have allowed two adults unrelated by blood who live together to file a declaration of civil union with the Department of Health, provided they agree to be jointly responsible for each other's basic living expenses.

A civil-union declaration would give the couple the same rights and obligations as spouses and prohibit discrimination based on a civil-union partnership status.

While clearly designed to provide benefits to same-sex couples, nothing would prevent an opposite-sex couple from choosing to enter into a civil union rather than a marriage.

A person in a civil union would not be allowed to enter another one. A married person also could not seek a civil union. And a civil-union couple seeking dissolution of the arrangement would need to go through a proceeding in District Court similar to divorce.

A landmark Hawai'i Supreme Court decision in 1993 ruled that the state's same-sex marriage ban violated the Hawai'i Constitution unless the state could justify the prohibition. Based on that ruling, a 1996 Circuit Court decision required the state extend the same rights, benefits and obligations to same-sex couples as those given to married people.

In 1998, however, the Hawai'i electorate voted by a margin of more than 2-to-1 for a constitutional amendment allowing the Legislature to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

In 1997, the Legislature passed a reciprocal-benefits law allowing same-sex couples to obtain some of the benefits of married couples. Gay rights advocates say that law offers them little.

The committee also heard testimony on House Bill 537, which would add sexual orientation as a protected status under laws prohibiting discrimination in housing. Gay rights advocates testified in favor of the measure, saying sexual orientation is among the most neglected forms of discrimination. Officials from Brigham Young University-Hawai'i urged an exemption for religious groups.

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 525-8070.