Civil unions may get quick vote at Hawaii Capitol |

Civil unions may get quick vote at Hawaii Capitol

Associated Press Writer

HONOLULU (AP) – 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.

The measure would grant gay couples the rights and benefits the state provides to married couples and is among a handful of similar proposals that could pop up in several other states. At the same time, a federal judge in San Francisco is considering the constitutionality of California’s same-sex marriage ban.

“This bill has already been voted on, so there isn’t as much convincing to do anymore,” said Alan Spector of Equality Hawaii, a leading supporter of the bill. “I think (legislators) get the substance of the bill and the need for the bill.”

Last year, the proposal easily won preliminary passage in the Legislature, but stalled in May after opponents lobbied and held a state Capitol rally attended by several thousand protesters.

Opponents, noting that this is an election year, cast doubt on claims that passage is at hand. Critics, including the Catholic Diocese of Honolulu and scores of evangelical Protestant churches, hope another rally, this one planned for Sunday, will be large enough to convince wavering lawmakers to kill the measure.

“It’s up to the people who oppose civil unions to remind the legislators that they work for the people,” said Garret Hashimoto, chairman of the Hawaii Christian Coalition. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts that the majority of the people in Hawaii oppose civil unions and gay marriage.”

No independent polls or surveys have been conducted on the issue, so it’s difficult to measure public sentiment. The last time voters directly weighed in on a related issue was in 1998 when 70 percent approved a constitutional amendment allowing the Legislature to reserve marriage for opposite sex couples.

Elswehere, at least one other state, New Mexico, appears poised to seriously consider a civil union measure. Bills in Illinois and Minnesota also may surface. Colorado, Wisconsin, Maryland and Maine have limited laws allowing same-gender civil unions. Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut permit same-sex marriage.

In Hawaii, the measure would expand the state’s existing reciprocal beneficiaries law by granting to unmarried same- and opposite-gender couples all of the rights and benefits the state provides to married couples. It is similar to broad civil union or domestic partnership laws in California, the District of Columbia, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and New Jersey.

The Hawaii legislation would have no impact on federal tax and other benefits that only apply to married opposite-sex couples. According to 2000 census records, more than 1,200 male couples, 1,100 female couples and 21,100 mixed couples lived together in Hawaii.

Supporters voice guarded confidence that the bill, pending in the Senate since May, still enjoys majority support in both chambers.

But House Speaker Calvin Say, a Democrat, suggested the bill could stall in the House if the Senate vote turns out to be slim. “If the bill limps over,” he said, “you know we don’t have the two-thirds, so why go through the exercise if the governor is going to veto?”

Foes say the House, whose members face reelection every two years, will be a prime focus of their lobbying.

The number of no votes among House members has “changed tremendously, in our favor,” said former state Rep. Dennis Arakaki, head of the Hawaii Family Forum and Hawaii Catholic Conference. “They are especially sensitive because they’re all up for election.”

Honolulu Catholic Bishop Larry Silva in a letter last week urged some 220,000 parishioners to lobby lawmakers. He called civil unions “simply a euphemism” for gay marriage and claimed it is justifiable to discriminate against gay couples who want to marry.

Spector contended Silva was “trying to impose his Catholic faith … upon all of Hawaii’s residents.”

Republican Gov. Linda Lingle has refused to say what she would do if the measure lands on her desk, though she recently urged lawmakers to shelve it, in favor of economic and budget matters.

Associated Press writer Mark Niesse contributed to this report.