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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Hawaii civil-union bill revision is proposed

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

Gay rights advocates have suggested a new draft of a civil-unions bill that would give both same-sex and heterosexual couples the option of entering into civil unions.

The draft also explicitly says the intent of the bill is not to revise the definition of marriage under state law, which is reserved between a man and a woman. The draft removes references to marriage and instead refers to the marriage chapter in state law.

The draft would still give same-sex couples who enter into civil unions the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as married couples under state law, but gay rights advocates hope that by offering civil unions to heterosexual couples, and softening the connection to marriage, the bill will be more palatable to skittish senators.

State Senate leaders are expected to discuss the new draft today in private caucus.

State Sen. Brian Taniguchi, D-10th (Manoa, McCully), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Government Operations Committee, where the bill is stalled, said the Senate would have to act by the Thursday deadline to have bills set for second crossover with the state House next week.

Taniguchi, who met with gay rights advocates yesterday afternoon, said he had no personal opinion yet on the draft but said there is some interest among senators. He said the options would be to hold a committee hearing on the draft or recall the existing bill to the Senate floor with the understanding that it would be amended.

"We're going to try to discuss it," he said. "I'm not particularly optimistic that a bill will pass."

Both options Taniguchi cited raise political difficulties.

If a hearing is held, one of the three opponents of the bill on the committee likely state Sen. Robert Bunda, D-22nd (North Shore, Wahiawa) would have to change their position and back the new draft for it to advance. Bunda, an aide said last night, had not read the draft and was inclined to support something closer to an amendment offered last week by state Sen. Will Espero, D-20th ('Ewa Beach, Waipahu), to expand the rights same-sex partners now have under the state's reciprocal beneficiaries law.

If senators recall the bill to the Senate floor, religious conservatives may complain that senators are trying to sneak the new draft through without a full hearing.

ADVOCATES HOPEFUL

Gay rights advocates, who were heartbroken after an attempt to recall the bill failed last month, appeared optimistic yesterday that the new draft addresses some of the concerns by senators that the existing bill is too close to marriage. The state House passed the bill in February.

"The main push is to distinguish civil unions from marriage, because that line has been blurred," said Jo-Ann Adams, an attorney active with the Democratic Party of Hawai'i. "So we have added an introduction that makes that clear. We have eliminated the word 'marriage' to make that clear. And we have now opened it up so that any two people can enter into a civil union, whether they are same-sex or opposite sex, which makes it clear that that's not marriage, because marriage is currently one man and one woman."

Kim Coco Iwamoto, a member of the state Board of Education, said advocates met late last week with state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha). She said that Hanabusa told them she would defer to Taniguchi, as the committee chairman with jurisdiction over the bill.

"We're crossing our fingers," Iwamoto said.

Debi Hartmann, a former state school board member, said the amendment offered by Espero falls short of moving toward equal protection for gays and lesbians. Espero's amendment would create a new civil-unions section of state law with the existing rights available through reciprocal beneficiaries, along with dozens more now available only to married couples.

But Hartmann said Espero leaves out some of the most salient laws governing the family and children.

Espero has described his amendment as a compromise that expands rights for same-sex partners while preserving marriage as between a man and a woman only.

Hartmann, who was among the leaders against same-sex marriage in the 1990s, said the new draft giving heterosexuals the option to enter into civil unions may be particularly attractive to elderly couples interested in sharing expanded benefits. Couples who marry after reaching retirement age, she said, do not receive the full amount of Social Security retirement benefits. Elderly couples who enter into civil unions would get the full benefits because civil unions are not recognized as marriage under federal law.

POLITICAL RISKS

Dennis Arakaki, the interim executive director of the Hawaii Family Forum, which opposes civil unions, said he was given a copy of the new draft yesterday and had not had time to read it closely. He said he would prefer the two sides take a step back from the issue and meet together after session to discuss a compromise. He said opponents acknowledge there are shortcomings in the reciprocal beneficiaries law and are willing to work to improve the rights of same-sex partners.

But some lawmakers have said privately that it may be more difficult to debate civil unions next session during an election year. Majority Democrats may be reluctant to prolong the debate and expose lawmakers to potential backlash from religious conservatives. The issue could also be helpful to Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, a Republican candidate for governor who opposes civil unions. Aiona could use the issue to attract moderates and conservatives.

Democratic activists, who have made civil unions a plank in the party's platform, may insist that Democratic elected officials and candidates make unambiguous promises to pass civil unions.

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.