Same-sex couples deserve full rights as 'civil unions'
State legislators have introduced bills that would recognize gay couples as civil unions.
HAWAII'S Supreme Court sparked a national debate 14 years ago when it required the state to explain why homosexual marriages should be forbidden. Hawaii voters proceeded to approve a state constitutional amendment that effectively imposed such a ban. The Legislature recognized "reciprocal beneficiaries" in 1997 and now should grant gay couples the same rights as opposite-sex couples.
Bills that would grant full marriages to same-sex couples entering into "civil unions" have been introduced in the House and Senate. It would not violate the Hawaii Constitution and has gained the support of Debi Hartmann,* former director of Hawaii Future Today, a group formed to oppose legalization of gay marriage.
Following the high court's 1993 opinion, dozens of states enacted legislation banning gay marriages. However, some states have made headway in allowing increased rights to gay couples. Massachusetts legalized gay marriages in 2003, Vermont and Connecticut recognize civil unions and California recognizes similar "domestic partnerships." A civil-union law will take effect in New Jersey on Feb. 19.
The New Jersey law followed that state's Supreme Court 4-3 ruling in October that anything less than equal rights and benefits extended to same-sex partners was unconstitutional. The issue was "not about the transformation of the traditional definition of marriage," wrote Justice Barry Albin, "but about the unequal dispensation of benefits and privileges to one of two similarly situated classes of people."
As a remarkable indication of how sentiment has changed, the three dissents were cast by justices who argued that same-sex couples should have full marriage rights. A poll indicated last year that two-thirds of New Jersey residents approved of civil-union status for gay couples.
Hawaii law allows gay partners various rights such as family and bereavement leaves, probate rights and hospital visitation. The main benefits to be derived from civil-union status would be rights governing areas such as taxation and adoption.
Opponents of same-sex marriage have contended that it intrudes on the sanctity of marriage. Kelly Rosati, executive director of the Hawaii Family Forum, said civil unions are "simply everything that is marriage by another name."
However, it is a distinction with an important difference. As Albin acknowledged in the New Jersey case, marriage has meant the union of a man and a woman through tradition and religious beliefs, and that need not change, at least now.
"To alter that meaning would render a profound change in the public consciousness of a social institution of ancient origin," Albin wrote. "When such a change is not compelled by constitutional imperative, it must come about through civil dialogue and reasoned discourse."
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