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Hawaii civil unions bill passes state House, goes to Senate

Proposal would extend married couples' rights to same-sex partners

The state House yesterday passed a bill to legalize civil unions among same-sex partners, a vote several lawmakers believe will help end discrimination against gays and lesbians in Hawai'i.

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The bill, which now moves to the state Senate, would grant partners in civil unions the same benefits, protections and responsibilities as married couples under state law. The state would also recognize civil unions, domestic partnerships and same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Partners in civil unions would not have the same protections as married couples under federal law, so the recognition is a rung below treating homosexual and heterosexual couples equally.

The House vote was 33-17 with one lawmaker excused, one vote shy of a veto-proof supermajority. The lawmaker who missed the vote, state Rep. K. Mark Takai, D-34th (Newtown, Waiau, Pearl City), who is preparing to deploy with the Hawai'i Army National Guard to Kuwait, supports civil unions.

State Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha), said yesterday she believes there are enough votes in the Senate for civil unions if the bill moves out of the Senate Judiciary and Government Operations Committee. The committee is currently divided 3-2 in favor of civil unions, with state Sen. Robert Bunda, D-22nd (North Shore, Wahiawa), undecided.

Hanabusa said she would consider forcing the bill out if it fails in committee. A one-third vote of the Senate would be required to recall the bill.

"I believe that if it makes the floor there are the votes in the Senate to pass civil unions," she said.

Hanabusa said she would only attempt to force the bill out of committee with the concurrence of the committee's chairman, state Sen. Brian Taniguchi, D-10th (Manoa, McCully), who backs civil unions. Taniguchi said he would prefer to deal with the bill in committee but would be open to alternatives if it stalls.

During the House floor debate yesterday, several lawmakers described civil unions as a measure of justice for gays and lesbians. Opponents, however, said gay activists would not be satisfied with civil unions and would eventually push for same-sex marriage, which they believe would weaken the institution of marriage.

In 1998, nearly 70 percent of Hawai'i voters backed a constitutional amendment that authorized the Legislature to define marriage in state law as between one man and one woman.

State House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, D-33rd ('Aiea, Halawa Valley, 'Aiea Heights), the bill's sponsor, said the debate was inspiring for him. He said he has occasionally been disappointed and frustrated by the legislative process but has always accepted it as part of elected office. He said that yesterday he felt, for the first time, like he belonged in the chamber and was making a difference.

"There will be a day when acceptance, tolerance, equity and justice are not just words, but they will be truly embodied by our actions," Oshiro said. "So let that day come closer. And let that day be today."

State Rep. Sylvia Luke, D-26th (Pacific Heights, Pauoa, Punchbowl), praised state Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu, D-41st (Waipahu, Village Park, Waikele), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, for what she described as having the courage to move the bill out of his committee when previous leaders — including her — did not.

"I feel kind of ashamed that we've closed our eyes to the discrimination that has gone on," Luke said.

opponents to speak up

State Rep. Gene Ward, R-17th (Kalama Valley, Queen's Gate, Hawai'i Kai), said activists in other states who have achieved civil unions have then pursued same-sex marriage. Three other states — Vermont, New Jersey and New Hampshire — allow civil unions. Two states — Massachusetts and Connecticut — permit same-sex marriage.

"This bill is not about equality, it's about an end run for same-sex marriage," Ward said.

In what she called one of her hardest speeches, state House Minority Leader Lynn Finnegan, R-32nd (Lower Pearlridge, 'Aiea, Halawa), said she grew up loving a sister who was gay and has died.

"I know that she can hear me today, and the last thing that I would want for her to feel in any way, shape or form is that I didn't love her for who she was," Finnegan said.

But Finnegan said she opposes civil unions to protect marriage between a man and a woman in the hierarchy of relationships recognized by law. "I can take this vote in good conscience because I know that my sister would love me no matter what I would do," she said.

Opponents of civil unions, including many who object because of their religious beliefs, did not organize to fight the bill in the House but will likely do more to try to block it from advancing in the Senate.

Dennis Arakaki, the executive director of the Hawai'i Family Forum who also represents the Hawai'i Catholic Conference, said opponents would soon get more active. "We feel that the will of the people has been expressed and we don't see the need to go through it again," said Arakaki, a former state lawmaker.

Paul Gracie, the co-chair of the Family Equality Coalition and a gay parent, was among the activists at the state Capitol yesterday to mark the vote. He said he was surprised, given the past opposition to civil unions, that the bill moved so quickly through the House.

"It really seemed miraculous to me, and amazing and hopeful," said Gracie, who has twin children.

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.