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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 6, 2010

Lingle soul-searching over civil unions

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

Gov. John A. Burns, a devout Catholic who attended Mass every day, felt his reputation was being unfairly tarnished. He was the subject of warnings, even threats, from clergy and lay members of his own church.

In 1970, three years before the U.S. Supreme Court would legalize abortion nationwide in Roe v. Wade, Burns had a bill on his desk that would undo a century-old state law and make abortion a decision for a woman and her doctor.

Burns personally believed in church doctrine that life results from conception. He considered abortion "a gravely sinful act." But he also believed in the separation between state authority and church authority. No governor, he said, must ever "let his private political and religious convictions unduly influence his judgment as governor of all the people."

Burns let the bill become law without his signature.

Gov. Linda Lingle, who has a civil unions bill on her desk, has been reading about Burns as she decides whether to sign, veto or allow the bill to become law without her signature.

The bill would give same-sex and heterosexual couples the ability to enter into civil unions and receive the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as marriage provides under state law.

Lingle, who is Jewish and opposes same-sex marriage, told reporters last month that the civil unions described in the bill appear to be same-sex marriage "but by a different name."

While her description suggests she may veto the bill, her reference to Burns and his example leaves open another possibility.

The Republican governor has said civil unions will not be her legacy.

"This will be one issue that came up that was a very tough issue," she said. "That's like saying that Gov. Burns' legacy is abortion. As you know, that was a very difficult issue for him. I've been reading a lot about it and the history of that time period.

"Nobody today talks about abortion as Gov. Burns' legacy. And this won't be my legacy."

Civil unions, like abortion, is an emotional issue with social, moral and political implications. If Lingle allows the bill to become law, Hawai'i would join a handful of states that have legalized civil unions. Hawai'i was among four states in 1970 to allow abortion at the discretion of women in the early stages of pregnancy before the fetus was viable.

Lingle, like Burns, has been the focus of intense outreach.

But Lingle is not hearing the same uniform opposition from Jews against civil unions that Burns heard from Catholics on abortion. (The Catholic Herald, the official newspaper of the diocese of Honolulu, accused Burns of betrayal and claimed he passively sat on the sidelines when he "could have stopped the wholesale murder of innocent lives through a veto.")

• • •

The two rabbis Lingle is closest to in Honolulu are divided.

Rabbi Itchel Krasnjansky, the executive director of the orthodox Chabad of Hawaii, said the biblical view is that marriage is sacred between a man and a woman. Under the Torah, homosexual acts are forbidden.

The Jewish people have survived, he said, because of the importance placed on family structure.

"Anything that's done that would weaken the traditional understanding of marriage and the family unit is something that will have far, far repercussions," he said. "It's not a matter of discriminating against anyone or even disregarding and dismissing the right for anyone to choose how to live their life.

"What's very fundamental in Jewish teaching is we all have free choice. We decide the choices to make in life.

"But the idea of legislating something that would weaken the family and the sacredness of marriage is problematic."

Krasnjansky said that while he is not a legal scholar on the differences between civil unions and marriage "we can split hairs all day" the practical matter is that civil unions would legitimize a lifestyle that is different from the traditional family.

Asked whether, in a generation, society will accept civil unions or even same-sex marriage the way people accept civil rights today, Krasnjansky said that many social revolutions of the past half-century have been healthy and productive while others have left casualties.

"I see very clearly that this would be one that would in fact leave a whole lot of heartache and confusion in its wake," he said.

Rabbi Peter Schaktman, of the reform Temple Emanu-El, has told Lingle that people who oppose civil unions from a religious perspective are "asking the state to enforce their version of morality on their behalf."

"There's a diversity of opinion about this issue," he said. "The bill is not coercive in any way. The bill itself doesn't force anyone to do anything they don't want to do.

"But not passing the bill limits the rights of people who want to engage in civil unions."

He said civil unions are more akin to two people entering into a contractual partnership than a marriage. "A civil union is not a religious event," he said.

Schaktman and other advocates met with Lingle as a group at the state Capitol, but the rabbi also spoke with the governor privately.

He said he and the governor talked about the story of the golden calf from the Torah and discussed the different leadership models of Aaron and Moses. Aaron helped build a golden calf that was worshipped by Israelites who feared that Moses would not return from Mount Sinai. When Moses returned with the Ten Commandments, and saw the Israelites celebrating the idol, he smashed the tablets, destroyed the calf and exacted punishment.

"While leaders need to be responsive to their communities, as Aaron was in certain ways in the building of the golden calf, leaders also have to understand what the greater good for the community is, and that was the role that Moses played in breaking the tablets and in calling for the calf to be destroyed," he said.

"Yes, the people wanted the golden calf. The fact that everyone wanted the golden calf didn't make it right. And Moses knew that. And he knew that it wasn't just a matter of having his way, it was a matter of knowing what was best for the people."

Schaktman said Lingle's role is to help educate. He said he has no doubt people will look back in a generation and believe that establishing civil unions was the right thing to do, even though it might not be the most popular decision today.

"I don't think it's going to take nearly that long," he said. "I think it's already happening. The onus is on those people who oppose it to demonstrate why they oppose it."

• • •

Months before Burns made his decision on abortion, he told fellow Demo-crats he personally favored repealing the century-old state law that allowed abortion only when the life of the woman was in danger.

He believed the state could not legislate morality. He hoped women and their doctors would reject abortion as a matter of conscience, as he and his wife did.

Burns' wife had two children before being stricken with polio and suffering a miscarriage. When she became pregnant again, doctors urged her to have an abortion. But she refused and gave birth to a son, James S. Burns, who would become chief judge of the state Intermediate Court of Appeals.

James Burns, now retired from the court, remembers counseling his father to let the bill become law. Gov. Burns was a former Honolulu police officer, a street cop who had seen the wreckage of illegal, back-alley abortions.

"He recognized that he had two hats: one as an individual, one as the governor," James Burns said of his father. "He basically told (Catholics), it wasn't my individual hat that made the decision, it was my hat as governor, and that's the way it is.

"I'm not the pope. I'm not the representative of the Catholic church. I'm the representative of the people and I've got to make decisions that are best for them."