Thursday, March 24, 2005

Deal struck on
housing law

Gay-rights groups and
the Mormon Church
reach compromise on
an anti-bias measure

A proposal that would prohibit discrimination in housing based on a person's sexual orientation or gender identity is closer to passing in the Legislature this year, after opposing sides worked out a compromise over a key sticking point.

Similar proposals have died in the past largely because of concerns raised by Brigham Young University-Hawaii that the legislation could force the institution to provide housing for gays, lesbians and others whose beliefs run against those of the Mormon Church, which sponsors the Laie school.

"What (both sides) did this time was they got together and they came up with language that they could both agree to," said Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa (D, Nanakuli-Makua).

A proposal already approved in the House would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of classifications protected against discrimination under existing fair housing laws, but exempt religious organizations.

After hearing House Bill 1715, House Draft 1, in committee yesterday, Hanabusa said she plans to advance it with some minor changes. If the full Senate approves the bill, which is expected, the House would have to agree to the changes before it could go to the governor for consideration.

Gov. Linda Lingle has not publicly stated a position on the proposed legislation.

The religious exception was crafted with the help of BYU-Hawaii officials. It essentially states that the law, if passed, would not apply to the school's student housing program.

"We feel that it's a fair balance between the interest of the advocates and churches as well as religiously affiliated institutions of higher education," said Steve Keali'iwahamana Hoag, an attorney representing BYU-Hawaii. "Our student housing program, both on and off campus ... was really not out in the public marketplace."

William Woods, an advocate for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, thanked BYU-Hawaii officials for working on the compromise.

"We heard what people's concerns were, and I believe we came out with something that was very useful," Woods said.

The agreement was even applauded by the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, which does not support the exception and thinks the anti-discrimination policy should be applied more broadly.

"It's not every day you see Bill Woods shaking hands with Steve Hoag," said Roger Fonseca, an attorney representing the ACLU. "We're not happy with the exception, but we will not stand in the way of compromise."

Not everyone was supportive of the proposal.

Opponents asked lawmakers to hold the bill in committee, arguing that the new law would create a special class of people protected under the law.

"You are, if you pass this, allowing gays to take copies of the proposed law when they go to attempt to rent or lease, using this law and forcing landlords to rent to them or be sued," said Daniel McGivern, president of Pro-Family Hawaii. "This would be discrimination in favor of gays, first and foremost. It is reverse discrimination against all others."

Lleander Jung, a landlord, presented the committee with petitions signed by about 1,500 people opposing the bill.

They called the proposal a "thinly disguised attempt to include sexual orientation and gender identity by definition into law to enforce acceptance of same sex, bisexual and or any other sexual orientation which may go against our religious values."

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