Bills would give state recognition to gay unions

HONOLULU — A group of bills introduced in the Legislature could provide same-sex couples with the legal benefits of marriage through civil unions.

The legislation was requested by the state Democratic party. And both House and Senate Democrats in the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature are supporting the bills.

One Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Gary Hooser, D-Kaua‘i-Ni‘ihau, would permit two unrelated people who are at least 16 years old to apply for a civil union license without regard to each person’s gender. The measure would give couples in civil unions the same rights and responsibilities as those who are married.

“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.”

Just as the state Supreme Court was on the brink of permitting same-sex marriages in Hawai‘i, in 1998 island voters approved a state constitutional amendment giving the Legislature the power to define marriage. The Legislature then approved a law defining marriage as between two people of opposite sexes.

Vermont and Connecticut have civil union laws. And New Jersey’s recently passed civil union law is expected to take effect next month. Massachusetts is the only state to allow same-sex marriages.

Legislators say the Hawai‘i proposals could get past the state constitutional prohibition by calling the relationships civil unions.

“This is not marriage,” Hooser said.

Rep. Blake Oshiro, D-Aiea-Halawa, who is supporting the bill in the House said the bills are being written “to avoid the connotation that this is marriage.”

Other states have passed similar bills, he said. “We shouldn’t be treating people as second-class citizens, especially if we believe in the ideas of tolerance and diversity,” Oshiro said.

Debi Hartmann, the former director of a group that formed to stop same-sex marriage in Hawai‘i, Hawaii Future Today, said civil unions is the answer.

Hartmann said she believes there needs to be a legal relationship for gays and lesbians.

“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 Kelly Rosati, executive director of Hawaii Family Forum, said the bills simply create “marriage by another name.”

She also said she hoped “leaders don’t want to get sidetracked with divisive issue.”

The potential for the question of civil unions to become a hot-button, divisive topic is a concern, Hooser said.

“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,” he said.

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