The final word hasn't been heard onBy Mike Yuen
domestic partnerships, but debate is
expected to be quieter this session, as
lawmakers vow to keep their
eyes on the economy
Do legislators need to pass a new law reaffirming that marriage is a relationship limited to one man and one woman?
Do they also need to act on Gov. Ben Cayetano's proposal to grant gay and lesbian couples domestic partnerships, which would give them the financial benefits of marriage but withhold adoption and parental rights?
When the 1999 Legislature convenes Wednesday, those new questions in Hawaii's nearly decade-long, often vociferous, debate over same-sex marriage will echo throughout the state Capitol.
But the debate may not be as divisive as in recent years.
Both Senate President Norman Mizuguchi and House Speaker-elect Calvin Say say they welcome debate on the latest mutations of the same-sex marriage question. But, they stressed, the debate will not be permitted to detract from their primary goal: fixing the state's anemic economy.
"I'm very confident," said Senate Judiciary Co-Chairman Matt Matsunaga, "that the Legislature will not allow itself to become paralyzed. It must address other issues of critical importance to the community. That's a gimme."
And while some are poised to testify about the pros and cons of domestic partnerships, some prominent traditional marriage advocates, such as lobbyist Linda Rosehill and businessman John Hoag, feel no urgency to head back to the Legislature.
"I'm betting there's no action unless there's a clear signal from courts that what is on the table is not adequate," said Rosehill, echoing Hoag's sentiments. Rosehill and Hoag were major figures behind the campaign that got nearly 70 percent of isle voters to approve a constitutional amendment rejecting same-sex marriage.
The next key move, Rosehill said, will have to come from the Hawaii Supreme Court -- not the Legislature. The high court has asked the state and civil rights attorney Dan Foley, who represents three gay couples suing for the right to marry, to submit briefs on the impact of November's vote on a 1996 Circuit Court ruling that permitted same-sex marriage.
The attorney general's office contends that the 1996 ruling must be overturned and that there is no need for the Legislature to pass another statute defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman, as it did in 1994.
Foley, however, insists that lawmakers must pass another bill prohibiting gay marriages, arguing that the recently approved constitutional amendment in favor of traditional marriage is not self-executing.
"I don't think I have many friends down there (in the Legislature) right now," Foley said. "I don't think anybody there will do anything for the people I represent."
It is up to Cayetano to ensure that his domestic partnership proposal advances in the Legislature, Foley said. "The ball is in his court."
Through a spokeswoman, Cayetano declined to say how strong an effort he will make to push his domestic partnership proposal.
"I don't see anybody in his administration that is going to make this his baby," Rosehill said. "Ben's thing has to be the economy. His campaign was riveted around that. Any other focus would not be keeping with where he was in the campaign and where he's been since he was re-elected."
While glad that Cayetano's domestic partnership proposal excludes adoption and custody rights, Hoag said he would prefer that the governor focus on improving the reciprocal-beneficiaries law. That law, while also denying adoption and parental rights, is unprecedented in the nation for granting homosexuals and other nontraditional couples the most extensive benefits outside of marriage, including survivorship and property rights.
The danger with establishing domestic partnerships is that it would set up gays and lesbians as a special class of people, Hoag said.
Cayetano, a longtime advocate of domestic partnerships, has said the reciprocal-beneficiaries law is flawed because it defines too broadly the class of people eligible for marriage-related benefits.
Since the law went into effect July 8, 1997, 450 such relationships have been recorded with the state Health Department, about 75 percent of them involving homosexual couples, said department spokesman Patrick Johnston.
During the law's first three to six months, 10 to 15 couples were registering weekly as reciprocal beneficiaries, Johnston said. In the past three weeks, the average is down to two couples a week.
Vanessa Chong, American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii executive director, said she and other civil rights activists will oppose any attempt by the Legislature to pass a marriage-definition bill. But they will support Cayetano's domestic partnership legislation.
"We don't see any logical basis for excluding child custody and adoption from the pack, but we understand the realities the governor faces in extending equality to gays and lesbians in the community," Chong said.
Cayetano's measure can be a stepping stone to extending full and equal status to gays and lesbians, she said.
Anti-gay rights activist Mike Gabbard, who was united with Rosehill and Hoag in pushing the anti-same-sex marriage amendment, disagrees with their decision to adopt a low profile during the upcoming legislative session.
He and his supporters "will oppose any legislation that confers state and social approval and blessings on homosexual activities and relationships," said Gabbard, who leads the Alliance for Traditional Marriage.
In the next election, he'll target for defeat lawmakers who vote for domestic partnerships, Gabbard vowed.