Hawaii Senate may pry civil unions bill from panel for vote
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
By Derrick DePledge
A civil unions bill likely will move forward at the state Legislature despite opposition from one lawmaker who had been seen as holding a crucial vote on the controversial issue.
State Sen. Robert Bunda, who was the potential swing vote on the Senate Judiciary and Government Operations Committee, said he plans to vote against the bill that would give same-sex partners the same rights as married couples under state law.
The bill, which passed the House earlier this month, could die in the Senate committee without Bunda's support. But Senate leaders, who favor the bill, may take the rare step of circumventing the committee to bring the bill to the full Senate.
Bunda, D-22nd (North Shore, Wahiawa), had been undecided but said he could not find an honest distinction between civil unions and same-sex marriage. He said he chose to make his decision public to diffuse some of the tension before a committee hearing on the bill Tuesday morning at the state Capitol auditorium.
"I think for us in Hawai'i, traditional marriage is still the majority sentiment," Bunda said. "And that's how I have come to the conclusion that I have."
State Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha), has said she would consider recalling the bill from committee with the concurrence of its chairman, state Sen. Brian Taniguchi, D-10th (Manoa, McCully). The committee had been split 3-2 in favor of civil unions, but with Bunda's announcement, it would be deadlocked.
Nine of the Senate's 25 members would have to agree to recall the bill and bring it to the Senate floor for a vote.
Hanabusa and state Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser, D-7th (Kaua'i, Ni'ihau), believe a majority of senators would back civil unions if the bill reaches the floor. The Senate may be close to having a supermajority — 18 votes — to override a veto.
The state House came one vote short of a supermajority when it passed civil unions earlier this month.
"Pulling something from committee is an extraordinary situation," Hooser said. "However, we have the ability to do that in the rules for extraordinary situations."
Hooser said he believes the support for civil unions by a significant majority in the Senate is sufficient reason to recall the bill if necessary. He also said civil unions have been endorsed by the Democratic Party of Hawai'i and by President Obama.
"I fundamentally believe that it's the right thing to do," Hooser said. "This is an issue of civil rights and equal rights. It's about treating people equally. It's about contracts under law. This is not legalizing same-sex marriage."
But recalling the bill from committee could ratchet up opposition from religious conservatives and others who believe civil unions would weaken traditional marriage. Senate staff can remember only a few times in the past few decades that the procedural maneuver has been used to free a bill. Senate leaders usually defer to the committee process and the discretion of committee chairmen about whether bills advance.
"We always talk about the committee process and we talk about the sanctity of the committee, so I think, to me, it would show further politicization of this particular bill and this selected issue," said state Sen. Sam Slom, R-8th (Kahala, Hawai'i Kai), who serves on the committee and who opposes civil unions.
OPPONENTS RALLY TODAY
Hundreds of people who oppose civil unions are expected at a rally this afternoon at the state Capitol organized by the Hawai'i Family Forum. Over the past week, since the bill cleared the House, opponents have sponsored newspaper and radio advertisements urging people to contact lawmakers against civil unions and in favor of traditional marriage.
Bishop Larry Silva, of the Roman Catholic Church in Hawai'i, has written Bunda asking him to "put a stop to this travesty to our democratic process."
Deacon Walter Yoshimitsu, the chancellor of the Roman Catholic Church in Hawai'i, said he believes lawmakers are going against the will of the people and that civil unions are simply a step toward same-sex marriage. "We think that civil unions equals same-sex marriage," he said.
Nearly 70 percent of Hawai'i voters in 1998 backed a constitutional amendment giving the Legislature the authority to define marriage as between one man and one woman.
But gay rights activists argue that civil unions are not the same as marriage and that public opinion has shifted in the decade since the vote. Activists are circulating a 2007 poll by QMark Research which found that 56 percent agree same-sex partners should have the right to enter into civil unions or domestic partnerships.
Yoshimitsu said the moral argument against civil unions has been made "somewhat difficult" by the fact that the religious community is not unified in opposition. He also conceded that opponents likely do not have the votes to stop civil unions in the Senate and may have to appeal to Gov. Linda Lingle, who has not taken a position on the bill and typically does not discuss potential vetoes in advance.
Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, a Catholic, opposes civil unions on moral grounds.
"We hope to get the majority of the faith-based community voicing their opposition. And we think that the churches that seem to be in favor of it are in the minority," Yoshimitsu said.
Tomorrow morning, the Interfaith Alliance Hawai'i, which includes representatives from Christian, Jewish and Buddhist faiths, plans a news conference at the Capitol in support of civil unions. "We support civil rights, social justice and the dignity of all peoples," said the Rev. Dr. John R. Heidel. "We basically see this not as a religious issue but as a civil-rights issue, and so we're working for equal rights of all people."
WHAT IT WOULD DO
The bill would grant same-sex partners who enter into civil unions the same rights, benefits and responsibilities under state law as married couples. It would also recognize civil unions, domestic partnerships and same-sex marriages performed in other states as civil unions in Hawai'i.
Three other states — Vermont, New Jersey and New Hampshire — allow civil unions. Two states — Massachusetts and Connecticut — allow same-sex marriage. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, California, Oregon, Maine, Washington state, Maryland and the District of Columbia allow forms of domestic partnerships.
Hawai'i also has a reciprocal beneficiaries law where same-sex partners who register have some of the same benefits as married couples.
For Bunda, the former Senate president who is thinking about a campaign for lieutenant governor in 2010, being identified as the potential swing vote on the issue has made him a focal point of the lobbying.
His office has received dozens of telephone calls and more than 1,400 e-mails, with the majority urging him to vote against the bill. He said he listened to arguments from both sides and did his own research before making his decision. He said he was not influenced by his religious faith — he is a Christian — or his political ambition.
Bunda said he does not believe people in Hawai'i are ready to embrace same-sex marriage as an alternative to traditional marriage. He said since the bill would give same-sex partners the same rights as married couples under state law, he does not see the distinction between civil unions and marriage.
Gay rights activists, however, contend that civil unions fall below marriage because the partnerships are not recognized under federal law and do not carry the same symbolic cultural weight of marriage in society.
Bunda also believes it will likely take a U.S. Supreme Court ruling or an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to resolve the national debate over same-sex marriage.
"This is a bigger issue than just Hawai'i," he said. "So whether we pass one or not, there will be appeals upon appeals upon appeals."
Reach Derrick DePledge at email@example.com.