Hawaii civil unions bill sparks deluge of messages to governor
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer
A day after the last-minute passage of a bill creating civil unions, opponents and supporters didn't spend much time ruminating on their loss or celebrating their victory.
Instead they kept up the pressure, flooding Gov. Linda Lingle's office with calls and e-mails on a measure she has until July 6 to sign, veto or allow the bill to become law without her signature.
By yesterday afternoon, the governor's office was drowning under at least 1,000 phone calls and thousands of e-mails, said Russell Pang, the governor's spokesman.
"We are getting a ... high volume," he said, adding that Lingle will review the public input over the coming days.
But it's not clear when she'll make a decision and the Republican governor has not indicated where she stands on the bill, though she previously urged lawmakers to focus on the state's budget deficit and economic recovery and not take up civil unions this session.
As news of the bill's passage hit national news services yesterday, people on both sides of the issue said Thursday's House vote — on the final day of the legislative session — was still sinking in.
The civil-unions bill was by far the most controversial issue facing lawmakers at the outset of the legislative session. But the debate died down considerably after the House, focusing on the state's economic woes and worried about the effects of a civil-unions vote on elections, indefinitely postponed action on the bill after the Senate passed it in January.
If the bill becomes law, Hawai'i would become the sixth state to offer domestic partnerships or civil unions that grant equal spousal rights to same-sex couples.
Currently, Hawai'i and three other states provide more limited spousal rights.
Five states have legalized same-sex marriage.
Civil-unions supporter Don Bentz, of Equality Hawai'i, said the vote Thursday approving House Bill 444 was a "significant victory" for civil-unions advocates locally and nationally, since Hawai'i has been discussing same-sex marriage longer than any other state.
"Hawai'i is the state that started the whole same-sex marriage movement," he said.
That discussion erupted in 1993, after the Hawai'i Supreme Court ruled that denying same-sex partners the right to marry violated the state Constitution.
In 1998, a constitutional amendment approved by 70 percent of Hawai'i voters granted the Legislature the authority to reserve marriage for a man and woman.
Supporters say the civil-unions bill, which failed to pass last year, isn't meant to redefine marriage but is about creating an alternative for same-sex and heterosexual couples who want to recognize their relationships and receive the benefits of marriage.
Opponents, though, say that civil unions are functionally the same as marriage and would pave the way for redefining marriage.
"This is not about Christians against gays," said Dennis Arakaki, executive director of Hawai'i Family Forum and the Hawai'i Catholic Conference. "It's really people who want to stand up for traditional marriage."
Arakaki urged opponents of the civil-unions bill to call or e-mail the governor to make their voices heard. Rallies against civil unions brought out some of the biggest crowds this legislative session, but Arakaki said the group got a "false sense of security" after the measure was tabled in January and activism waned greatly.
Arakaki said opponents are now trying to make up for that lack of momentum. They're reaching out in person to the governor and to their legislators, he said, rather than organizing public rallies or sign-waving events.
"We really have to emphasize the personal touch," he said. "We're asking people to call, e-mail or fax messages to the governor."
Garret Hashimoto, of the Hawai'i Christian Coalition, said opponents are "in shock" following the 31-20 House vote Thursday, but are optimistic the governor will veto the bill.
"It's time for action," he said. "Definitely, everybody's flooding the governor's office."
Bentz, of Equality Hawai'i, said supporters of civil unions are also mobilizing.
"The next step ... is getting the word out from our members to the governor," he said.
Political insiders said they anticipate that the measure likely will fuel conservative organizing efforts and make civil unions an issue in the September primary and November general election. It could also be a boon for Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona's gubernatorial run by energizing religious conservatives who oppose the bill.
Aiona, an opponent of civil unions, released a statement Thursday saying that the bill should not become law and that the issue should be put on the ballot for voters to decide.
Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, a potential Democratic candidate for governor, opposes same-sex marriage and could also get help from religious conservatives in the primary.
Former Congressman Neil Abercrombie, a Democratic candidate for governor, supports the House bill and says civil unions aren't the same as same-sex marriage.Advertiser Staff writer Derrick DePledge contributed to this report. Reach Mary Vorsino at 221-8681.