Bills would allow civil unions for gays
"I think it is past time to have the conversation," one senator says
Same-sex couples would have the legal benefits of marriage through a civil union, according to bills introduced in the Legislature.
The state Democratic party asked for the legislation, and Democrats in the House and Senate are supporting the bills.
In the Senate, Sen. Gary Hooser (D, Kauai-Niihau) introduced a bill, SB-1062, to permit two unrelated people at least 16 years old to apply for a civil-union license "without regard to gender."
The bill would extend the same rights and responsibilities of married spouses to partners in a civil union.
"I personally support the concept of allowing civil unions," Hooser said. "I think it is past time to have the conversation and move the issue forward. We should treat people equally."
In 1998, with the state Supreme Court poised to permit same-sex marriages, voters approved a state Constitutional amendment that gave Legislature power to define marriage.
The Legislature then approved a state law stating that marriage must be between two people of opposite sexes.
Legislators say the civil-union proposals would avoid the constitutional prohibition by saying it would be only a civil union.
"This is not a marriage," Hooser said.
Rep. Blake Oshiro (D, Aiea-Halawa) who is supporting the bill in the House, said "all people should be treated with tolerance" and explained that the bills are being written "to avoid the connotation that this is marriage."
"There are other states that have already passed this bill," Oshiro said. "We shouldn't be treating people as second-class citizens, especially if we believe in the ideas of tolerance and diversity. This is something that I think is very worthwhile."
Civil-union proponents have attracted an important ally in Debi Hartmann, the former director of Hawaii Future Today, a organization formed to stop same-sex marriage in Hawaii.
Hartmann says civil unions would be an answer.
"Where my position has not changed is in the defense of marriage as the union between a man and woman," Hartmann said. "One of the things this civil-union bill does not impact is the current marriage language."
But, Hartmann said, the bill in the Legislature "is really striking out in new territory."
"It is acknowledging that there are legal relationships that need to have identities. I believe there needs to be a legal relationship for gays and lesbians," Hartmann said.
Others, however, say the bill is neither needed nor wanted.
Kelly Rosati, Hawaii Family Forum executive director, said the civil-union bills under consideration are "simply everything that is marriage by another name."
"It is all the rights and benefits of marriage, but it is called civil unions," she said. "We think it becomes virtually indistinguishable."
Both supporters and opponents of the civil-union legislation also fear that it will become another round in the divisive same-sex marriage debate.
About 10 years ago, Hawaii became the first state to seriously consider same-sex marriage, and the resulting debate became a bitter political fight that forced politicians to declare whether they were for or against same-sex marriage.
Several state legislators said they lost their re-election campaigns because of their stand in favor of same-sex marriage.
Father Marc Alexander, Hawaii Catholic Church vicar general, said he didn't "want to create a distraction when other critical issues must be addressed."
Rosati also sought to downplay the civil-union legislation, saying she hoped "leaders don't want to get sidetracked with divisive issues."
Hooser acknowledged that "this could be a hot-button issue that a lot of people would avoid," but added that fellow Democrats have told him "the time has come" to move forward with the debate.
"It is a concern that the whole perception is that this is going to be a hot-potato divisive issue.
"At the same time, for those of us who believe it is the right thing to do, I don't think we should hesitate or not put this issue forward because we are afraid of controversy," Hooser said.
Oshiro also acknowledged that civil unions will be a controversial issue, but said the Legislature should be able discuss it.
"It's very controversial, but I think the Legislature is the place for public forum and debate," Oshiro said.
Vermont approved a civil-union law in 2000 and Connecticut allowed civil unions in 2005. New Jersey has passed a civil-union law that is expected to take effect next month. Massachusetts is the only state that allows same-sex marriage.
California's state law permits domestic partnerships.