Civil unions bill stuck in panel, but gaining


POSTED: Sunday, February 22, 2009

Supporters and opponents of civil unions for same-sex partners are increasing the pressure on state legislators to act on a civil unions bill that is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

House Bill 444 has already cleared the state House on a 34 to 17 vote.

The six Senate committee members appear to be deadlocked on the bill, as Sen. Robert Bunda, considered the swing vote, announced that he will vote against it.

The expected count has Sens. Brian Taniguchi, Dwight Takamine and Clarence Nishihara in favor and Sens. Bunda, Mike Gabbard and Sam Slom opposed.

But, even a deadlocked committee does not end the political drama, because the Senate can bypass the committee and bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

Senate President Colleen Hanabusa says the decision will be made by the Senate's 23 Democrats meeting privately in caucus with input from Taniguchi, the Judiciary chairman.

Hanabusa said “;the indications I have are that the votes are there.”;

Opponents, including religious leaders and the Catholic Church, are planning to rally at the state Capitol today at 2 p.m.

Tomorrow the Interfaith Alliance, another group of churches, will hold a rally at 10 to support the civil unions bill.

Senate Judiciary Committee members say they have gotten more than 1,200 e-mails on the issue.

The Hawaii diocese of the Catholic Church published on its Web page (http://www.catholic- hawaii.org) a letter from Bishop Larry Silva and addressed to Bunda asking that he vote against civil unions.

“;Accepting civil unions as an indication of equality may lead others to seek the same 'equality.' Will polygamists be next to demand 'equality'? Others whose values will continue to erode the social fabric of our community?”; Silva wrote.

For his part, Bunda says he is willing to help rewrite Hawaii's law on reciprocal benefits, but says civil union supporters want a bill such as HB 444, which states that all rights of a married coupled would be extended to a same-sex partnership.

“;They want civil union and ultimately gay marriage,”; said Bunda (D, Wahiawa-Pupukea).

The law, Bunda said, is too complex to be reduced to an issue of civl rights.

“;I believe the challenges to the civil-rights issues or any change to the marriage laws will require a U.S. Supreme Court ruling or a constitutional amendment,”; Bunda said.

Taniguchi was out of town and not available for comment.

Another senator opposing the bill is Slom (R, Hawaii-Kai-Diamond Head) who noted that in 1998 Hawaii voted nearly 70 percent in favor of allowing the Legislature to set the rules for marriage and that the Legislature had already said that marriage was between a man and a woman.

“;One of the obvious purposes of marriage, from time immemorial, is the procreation and formation of children. Such procreation is not possible in a same-sex union and therefore should not be given the same dignity or protection as marriage,”; Slom said.

Some of the strongest testimony in favor of civil unions is coming from Debbie Hartman, who was a leading spokeswoman for the Mormon Church against gay marriage a decade ago.

She testified during the four-hour House hearing on the bill and is now walking the halls of the Capitol lobbying for the bill.

“;It has been a 10-year journey for me,”; Hartman said.

“;What I saw was a genuine lack of protections and coverage for the children of same-sex couples,”; Hartman said.

“;When you get married you automatically have protections for the children, but when you enter into a reciprocal benefits relationship as a same-sex couple, you do not get those protections for any children brought into the relationship.

“;To me that is devastating. So I began to look at what is fair, just and right for children and partners and civil unions was the only way to give them protection,”; Hartman said.

“;I look at marriage as something that has to be defended and there are also laws that must apply to all citizens equally and we must balance those two ideas.”;