Hawaii Senate passes civil-unions bill, 18-7
• Photo gallery: Civil unions bill passes
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
The state Senate yesterday passed a civil unions bill with enough votes to override a potential veto, sending a strong message of support to the state House and Gov. Linda Lingle.
The 18-7 vote came after many senators, conscious that they may be making history, described civil unions as part of the same long path toward equality as voting rights were for women and civil rights were for blacks.
The bill would give both same-sex and heterosexual couples the ability to enter into civil unions and have the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as marriage under state law.
Senate Democrats met the veto-proof cushion that state House leaders said they wanted to see after watching the Senate fumble with civil unions last year. The House passed a civil unions bill last session that applied only to same-sex couples, but now will consider whether to send the Senate version to the governor.
Dozens of gay rights advocates in the Senate gallery exploded with joy and relief after the vote, while religious conservatives filed silently out of the chamber, knowing the debate is not over.
"I think the world is moving in the direction of equality," said Tara O'Neill, an assistant professor of science education at the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa. "It's about being valued."
Janet Hobson, a home-school parent from 'Ewa Beach, said she believes most people oppose civil unions and that their voices will eventually prevail.
"It's not over. I believe that the will of the people, the voice of the people, will be heard," she said. "And it needs to be honored by those who are in office, who we elected to office."
Gay rights advocates were encouraged by the Senate vote, but there is some apprehension about a technical flaw in the effective date of the bill, which is Jan. 1, 2010. Senators had set the date thinking the bill would pass last session.
The state attorney general's office has said the retroactive date is not illegal, but could create administrative problems at the state Department of Health in implementing civil unions.
The flaw could also be used by Lingle as a reason to veto the bill without addressing the issue of civil unions.
The Senate rejected an amendment yesterday to correct the date, after several senators cited the state attorney general's office's opinion. But many senators believe Senate leaders did not want the amendment because it would have delayed a final vote on the bill until next week, giving opponents more time to apply political pressure and perhaps jeopardize the veto-proof margin.
Lingle, a Republican, has not said whether she would veto the bill. Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona said yesterday that the Senate vote was at odds with the people of the state.
"Instead of redefining the institution of marriage, legislators should be focused on improving public education and balancing the state budget," Aiona said in a statement.
"Like other movements across the country, voters will have the final say on Election Day."
State House Speaker Calvin Say, D-20th (St. Louis Heights, Pālolo Valley, Wilhelmina Rise), said the majority Democrats would meet in private caucus on Monday to discuss civil unions.
He said the discussion will likely focus on whether to send the Senate version to the governor, rather than whether to address the technical flaw. If the House amends the bill to fix the date, it would go into conference with the Senate, a process that could take weeks and detract from work on the state's budget deficit.
Say, who personally favors civil unions, said the decision to schedule the bill for a vote may depend on whether there is a two-thirds majority to override a veto, or 34 of 51 lawmakers. The House passed a civil unions bill last session 33-17, with one Democrat who backs the bill absent.
Say said some lawmakers who have previously voted for civil unions may not want to again in an election year. All House lawmakers are up for re-election — while only about half are in the Senate — and are generally considered more vulnerable to the shifts and mood of public opinion.
"Personally, it's the right thing to do, but in the political environment that we are in, a lot of them may not want to take a hard decision at this point in time because of the elections," he said.
VOTE FOR EQUALITY
In the Senate yesterday, many senators tried to rise above contemporary politics and put civil unions into the historical context of equality.
State Sen. Rosalyn Baker, D-5th (W. Maui, S. Maui), spoke of the separation of church and state and said many of the same emotional arguments used in the past to deny the vote to women and civil rights to blacks are now being used against civil unions.
"I see nothing in this measure that denies, hurts or harms traditional marriage," Baker said. "I see nothing that takes away from those values or tells other people you can't do them.
"What I see is an acknowledgement that there are all kinds of families, that there are all kinds of relationships, and all of those deserve to be treated equally under the law."
State Sen. Sam Slom, R-8th (Kāhala, Hawai'i Kai), said voters should ultimately decide, and he proposed a constitutional amendment for the November ballot asking whether marriage should be reserved for heterosexual couples.
Slom said the issue is more about state money and benefits than equality. "I don't view it as civil rights. I view it at best as civil license," he said.
State Sen. Mike Gabbard, D-19th (Kapolei, Makakilo, Waikele), said it was not possible to compare immutable characteristics such as sex or skin color to sexual orientation.
Gabbard, a leader in the battle against same-sex marriage in the 1990s, also said he resented those who would suggest opponents are bigots. He said civil unions would be functionally the same as marriage under state law.
"Marriage is not just a word, it is the foundation, it is the bedrock of our society. It is the cornerstone of civilization and it impacts every one of our lives," he said.
But state Senate Vice President Russell Kokubun, D-2nd (S. Hilo, Puna, Ka'ū), said the bill clearly states that it is not the intent of the Legislature to redefine marriage.
Civil unions, he said, would be a distinct yet meaningful alternative for same-sex and heterosexual couples who want to recognize their relationships and receive state rights and benefits.
Kokubun also challenged those who have described the debate as a distraction from the budget deficit or other issues before the Legislature.
"There is no issue more important than treating each other with respect, particularly those whose opinions differ from our own," he said.