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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 2, 2010

Finally, a vote on civil unions

Proponents of civil unions finally got what they wanted at the Legislature: an up-or-down roll call vote on House Bill 444.

It was good to put lawmakers on the record about this issue. And it is important to recognize what this measure is and what it isn't.

Civil unions under this bill would be a secular partnership, the legal equivalent of marriage within Hawai'i. It is not same-sex marriage, however, whatever the opponents charge.

For starters, it's open to heterosexual couples who, for a variety of financial and personal reasons, want government sanction of their partnership but would prefer to avoid the religious and cultural tetherings of traditional marriage.

More pointedly, provisions of this bill don't extend beyond Hawai'i and federal spousal rights don't apply. The state already recognizes the need that same-sex couples have for civil interventions, through the reciprocal beneficiaries law. But many protections are lacking here. For example, when a partnership ends, often by one partner acting unilaterally, the other partner can't tap the same judicial services that protect divorcing couples.

But this is not just a legal issue. It's a highly charged emotional one, and lawmakers' 11th hour unannounced vote on HB 444 in the closing minutes of the session on Thursday was just plain sneaky, a total fakeout.

That's fine in poker but it doesn't fly in a democracy. For months, House leaders had left the impression that the bill was dead, and yet Thursday afternoon it rose from the dust before its loud and committed opponents could get down to the Capitol.

The maneuver justifiably enraged civil-unions opponents, and the political battle certainly won't end here. Even if the bill becomes law, there will likely be an effort to put the civil-unions issue to a vote as a constitutional amendment. That wouldn't be the worst thing, since its intent clearly runs counter to the 1998 constitutional question that led to the establishment of marriage as exclusively between a man and woman.

But until that happens, we believe the civil-unions bill should become law.

The bill now awaits action by Gov. Linda Lingle, who has not disclosed her position on the issue.

There have been hints that technical errors in the bill, drafted in the previous session, could be seized on as the basis for its rejection. Lawmakers acknowledge certain ambiguities in wording, and the bill was written to take effect last January an artifact that was never corrected.

But these technicalities shouldn't be used as the trigger to shoot down HB 444. Ambiguities can be fixed, and proponents surely won't complain that the law is backdated.

Despite the indefensible last-minute maneuvering, in the end House members delivered straightforward statements for or against civil unions, on the record and in an election year. It wasn't exactly brave, but it was the right thing to do.