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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Civil unions issue remains political divider

By David Shapiro

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Demonstrators for and against civil unions came out in force during last legislative session's massive state Capitol showdown.


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If there aren't already enough big egos in the 2010 election for you, get ready for an Almighty presence.

The unresolved battle in the Legislature over gay unions has opened Hawai'i's religious divide to the widest since 1998, when 69 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment that led to marriage being defined as between one man and one woman.

Whatever the Legislature does next year, there are candidates itching to campaign on civil unions.

The House passed HB 444 to extend the legal rights of marriage to same-sex couples early this year, but the Senate got cold feet after religious opponents protested and ended up stalling the bill.

Tensions were so high in the Democratic Party, which officially supports gay unions, that the party reprimanded Democratic Sen. Mike Gabbard for helping to lead the opposition.

Civil unions advocates are divided on how to proceed next year. Many are determined to pass HB 444, which needs only one more reading in the Senate and House approval of a Senate amendment extending civil unions to opposite-sex couples as well as gays.

But some lawmakers are leery of passing the controversial measure in an election year, especially when they might have to muster a two-thirds vote to override a potential veto by Republican Gov. Linda Lingle.

This group advocates holding the bill and then letting it sail through in 2011, when they presume there will still be a strong Democratic majority in the Legislature and they hope a Democratic governor as well.

Either way, opponents of gay unions will make it a major issue in the election; the question is whether it still has the same legs as a decade ago, when several Democratic legislators lost their seats over same-sex marriage.

There are signs that the civil unions approach, which seeks to remove the emotional question of marriage and limit the issue to equalizing legal rights, has softened some opposition that existed in 1998.

The Mormon Church, for instance, led the fight against same-sex marriage, but has taken no position for or against civil unions.

Nevertheless, there are candidates eager to test the issue's potency.

Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, the likely Republican nominee for governor, was a leading opponent of HB 444, accusing Democrats of trying to end-run voters by imposing same-sex marriage under a different name.

That directly contrasts Aiona from one of his Democratic opponents, U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who supports gay unions.

When another likely Democratic candidate, Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, didn't respond to a media inquiry about his positions on gay unions and abortion, Republican chairman Jonah Ka'auwai attacked him for concealing his "moral beliefs."

Hannemann, a Mormon, essentially supported the church position in 2004, saying he "always believed that marriage is sacrosanct between a man and a woman" and would not support same-sex marriage.

But he also said he is sensitive to issues of discrimination and did not rule out recognition of domestic partnerships, which his office says is still his position.

That leaves him wiggle room on the specifics and positions him comfortably between Abercrombie and Aiona; he can run in the Democratic primary as more traditional than Abercrombie, and if the makes it to the general election, as more moderate than Aiona.

The issue is also spilling into legislative races, with Honolulu Councilman Gary Okino the first of many candidates expected to take on civil union supporters with his announcement that he'll challenge Rep. Blake Oshiro, the sponsor of HB 444.

In testimony before the Legislature, Okino said civil unions were against God's word, and he said he's running against Oshiro to "bring a righteous point of view."