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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 30, 2010

Lawmakers test voters' sentiment

 •  Historic civil-unions bill gets House OK

By Jerry Burris

State lawmakers have spit into the wind with their vote to send a civil-unions bill to Gov. Linda Lingle.

The vote (in the state House, as the Senate had approved the measure earlier) is bound to generate a new round of political controversy and undoubtedly will be an issue in this fall's legislative elections.

Every member of the House, which voted 31-20 in favor of civil unions, is up for re-election. Half of the Senate, which earlier approved the idea 18-7, is in the same boat.

This is a classic example of political sentiment at odds with popular sentiment. After the Hawai'i Supreme Court made national headlines by ruling in 1993 that same-sex couples have an equal protection right to marry, the backlash was immediate. The Legislature proposed a constitutional amendment that marriage should be reserved to couples of the opposite sex and the voters overwhelmingly approved that amendment.

The amendment stands today, so even if Lingle allows this latest bill to become law, count on a vigorous and exhausting legal battle to follow.

There should be no reason why same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry and enjoy all the rights and obligations of heterosexual couples. (And make no mistake; marriage imposes nearly as many obligations as it does privileges. The whole idea is stability of society and stability should not rest on the gender of the individuals involved.)

In fact, Hawai'i has put its toe into these waters already, with laws that grant same-sex couples some of the rights and privileges enjoyed by heterosexual couples. Advocates say this is a timid half-a-loaf approach that does not focus on the fundamental question: Should same-sex couples be able to stand before the state and receive all the rights, benefits and obligations as heterosexual couples?

Public opinion, which is shifting slightly, still says no. There are deeply felt and sincere beliefs that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Many who defend marriage in this context say they have no interest in disenfranchising same-sex couples, but they argue such couples should achieve their goals through other means.

This argument is far from over. There is a fair chance Lingle will veto the legislation. She is unlikely to frame her argument on moral grounds, but rather on practical issues of worker benefits, costs, child protection and the like. All legitimate concerns, to be sure.

If anything, the vote by the Legislature this week will force the issue once again to the forefront of the political agenda. Every lawmaker up for re-election this fall will have to explain and defend his or her vote, pro or con. This is useful. We are never going to get to a community consensus on this matter without public debate and discussion.

Same-sex marriage is too important a matter to be left in the closet, so to speak. By its vote this week, the Legislature ensures that the issue will once again be the focus of public conversation.

That can only be for the good.