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Civil Debate: HB 444 accommodates equality and religion


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POSTED: Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I know of the strong feelings that surround House Bill 444 but feel there are important reasons we should support civil unions as permitted in that bill.

HB 444 would establish a very happy and sensible regime that would accommodate both important religious sensibilities and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that under the First Amendment "government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion."—Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687 (1994).

HB 444 very happily accommodates and accepts the view that religious bodies will remain free, subject only to traditional legal constraints, to award the religious sanctity of marriage to those persons who seek it and who share their religious values. At the same time, it also accepts and accommodates the important view that, where the parties do not seek or want, or cannot get, the approval of a religious institution for their union, they can be joined by a civil union that will provide them the civil rights and responsibilities that are vital to their well-being and to their lives, but not the religious blessings and obligations. Importantly, this applies to opposite-sex couples as well as to same-sex couples.

This accommodation gives substantial effect to the wise biblical admonition: "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's."—Matthew 22:21 (The former are currently the very important civil rights and responsibilities which arise from a marital union. The latter are the spiritual blessings of marriage.)

And please be assured that there are situations where a religious organization could deny the sanctity of marriage to couples of the opposite sex where one of them is not a member of their faith, or for other reasons. Conversely, there are opposite-sex couples seeking the civil benefits of marriage who would find that they could not, in good faith, pledge themselves to the religious demands of faith or to the oath which marriage in a religious institution or even by a "marriage" presided over by a public official, may require.

Thus, by virtue of HB 444, the many civil rights and responsibilities embodied in the marriage laws would become available to those, whether of opposite sex or same sex, who seek a civil union without the religious constraints or oaths required by marriage. At the same time, the regime of marriage sanctified by our religious institutions would remain available to those who seek it and who qualify for it under the rules of their chosen religious institution. This, I think, is a perfect accommodation with the requirements of the First Amend- ment. All persons of good will should support it.

Richard S. Miller, J.D., LL.M., is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa's William S. Richardson School of Law.