Thursday, February 19, 2004

Isle bill backs
gay unions

Homosexual rights get a second
look from the Legislature amid
a heated national debate

Six years after Hawaii voters overwhelmingly rejected same-sex marriages, lawmakers are renewing the debate with a hearing tonight on a bill calling for civil unions for people of the same gender.

Legislature 2004
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State Legislature: Bills
& Hawaii Revised Statutes

State Rep. Eric Hamakawa, Judiciary Committee chairman, who introduced the bill last year, acknowledged that the issue will be controversial both in the Legislature and the community.

"I think the Legislature should at least give the bill a hearing and discuss it," said Hamakawa (D, Hilo-Glenwood).

House Bill 1024, going before the House Judiciary Committee at 7 p.m. in Room 325 at the state Capitol, comes as the national debate on the issue flares anew.

Since last Thursday, San Francisco city officials have sanctioned 2,700 gay marriages in defiance of state law, and the Massachusetts Supreme Court recently ruled that it is unconstitutional to bar gay couples from marriage. President Bush jumped into the debate yesterday, reiterating his opposition to gay marriage and saying he was "troubled" by the events in Massachusetts and San Francisco.

The House bill covers unmarried people 18 or older who are not related and live together. The measure would allow them to "consider themselves to be members of each other's immediate family and agree to be jointly responsible for each other's basic living expenses." They would be allowed to enter a civil union after filing a declaration with the state health director and would have the same rights and responsibilities of married men and women.

Hamakawa said he could not predict if the bill would be approved by his committee, but he considered it a civil rights issue.

"All couples, regardless if they are of the same sex, should be afforded the same rights and responsibilities," Hamakawa said.

Same-sex marriage has been a divisive issue in Hawaii and across the nation.

At least 38 states and the federal government have approved laws or amendments barring the recognition of gay marriage. There have been calls for a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Yesterday, the Utah House gave final approval to a measure outlawing same-sex marriages and sent it to the governor, who has not taken a position on the bill.

In 1998, Hawaii voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment giving the Legislature the power to restrict marriage to people of the opposite sex. The bitter debate in the Legislature was partially responsible for 1998 defeat of seven legislators who supported some form of same-sex marriage.

After the constitutional amendment vote, legislators passed the so-called reciprocal benefits law that extends a small number of benefits, such as hospital visitation, health benefits, probate and property transfers, to homosexual couples or nontraditional families.

The bill up for consideration tomorrow would substitute civil unions for the reciprocal beneficiary law, Hamakawa said.

Martin Rice, legislative chairman of the Civil Unions -- Civil Rights Movement, said his group pushed for the bill.

"Even this is still not the same as marriage," Rice said, "but with this a couple would be treated equally in regard to taxes and benefits."

Rice said there are 340 benefits available to married couples that are not available to same-sex couples.

Under the state law providing for reciprocal benefits for same-sex couples, the state Health Department reports only 790 couples have registered, Rice said.

"A civil union bill would garner more support," Rice said.

Rep. Bud Stonebraker (R, Kalama Valley-Hawaii Kai) said he is concerned that the civil unions bill bypassed the House Health Committee, despite the role the Health Department and its director would take in registering civil unions.

"It's a power play by the ultraliberal Democrats to force on the people of Hawaii something they made their voices clear on in the 1998 amendment," he said.

Senate President Robert Bunda said he has not changed his opposition to the bill.

"I am not surprised that bills like this are being put on the table. We had already tackled this issue and put the constitutional amendment on the ballot, and so obviously this position did not make it," said Bunda (D, Kaena-Wahiawa-Pupukea).

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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