Hawaii Civil Unions bill starts up again
January 16th, 2010
When Hawaii’s Supreme Court determined in 1993 that denying marriage to same-sex couples was discriminatory, it shocked America. Although some gay folks had been fighting for decades for the ability to protect their families and honor their commitments, to most people – gay or straight – this was unexpected and foreign.
However, the court did not demand immediate implementation. It granted a period in which the state could build a case justifying the discrimination and showing that it was not unconstitutional. But in 1996 the court rejected the state’s justification and declared that denying marriage to same-sex couples was unconstitutional in the state. But they held off requiring implementation until appeal was heard.
And during the five year delay the anti-gay marriage industry was started. In 1996, the federal government passed the Defense of Marriage Act which, for the first time, asserted that the federal government would not recognize the rights of states to control marriage and family law (many “state’s rights advocates” found that their anti-gay biases were far stronger than their professed principles).
And in 1998 in Hawaii, the first “protect marriage” constitutional amendment was passed. But, unlike those which would follow, this amendment does not define marriage; rather, it defines who is entitled to define marriage:
The legislature shall have the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples.
And the legislature had already done so.
However, in an effort to offer some pretense of equality in hope of avoiding being required to honor same-sex marriages, in 1997 the legislature had created a reciprocal beneficiary scheme. It wasn’t much consolation.
A reciprocal beneficiary can be comprised of any two people unable to marry (brother/sister for example) who fill out a form. The regulations that this registration impacts are minimal and the attorney general declared that the most significant benefit, workplace medical insurance, was not required to be recognized by private business.
Thus, while Hawaii has had “recognition” since 1997, it is not of much use and not often elected.
Due to the unique nature of the Hawaii amendment, there is no bar on the legislature passing marriage equality or civil unions legislation. And civil unions bills have been introduced with little reception for years.
But in 2009 a bill was introduced which received support. House Bill 444 would provide all of the rights, benefits, and privileges of marriage but under a civil union structure. The union would be conducted (rather than simply filing a clerical form) by clergy or a judge, similar to marriage. Civil unions would be limited to same-sex couples and exclude family members.
The hopes for the bill were high. It passed the House Judiciary Committee on February 5, 2009 by a vote of 12-0. It passed the full House on February 12, 2009 by a vote of 33-17. Then it went to the Senate.
Where it sat in a divided Senate Judiciary Committee.
Finally on May 7, 2009, one day before the end of the legislative session, the full Senate voted to pull the bill from the committee. But this was not to vote on HB 444; rather, it was to amend HB 444 to clarify that Hawaii was most definitely not granting marriage to same-sex couples and that this was a second-class status and to also amend the bill to allow opposite-sex couples to enter civil unions.
By amending the bill so close to the end of the session, there was no chance that the House could respond to the revised version and therefore the bill was killed for a year. Senators afraid of voting were granted a reprieve until the following year’s session.
Now that reprieve is over. (Washington Post)
When Hawaii legislators reconvene on Wednesday, all eyes will be focused not on teacher furloughs that has resulted in the nation’s shortest school year or the state’s $1 billion budget deficit, but legislation that would allow same-sex couples to form civil unions.
Supporters are cautiously optimistic of the bill’s passage. But anti-gay activists are planning a big rally for Sunday in hopes that their display of animus towards their gay neighbors and support for institutionalized discrimination will intimidate potential supports into betraying their ideals during an election year.
The Hawaii legislature is comprised almost exclusively of Democrats. The Senate has 23 Democrats and 2 Republicans, and the House split is 45-6. This is an internal Party decision.
And if the bill is passed, it will then go the Republican Governor Linda Lingle who, while encouraging the legislature to delay the bill until some other time, has refused to say whether she will sign or veto the legislation.