Hawaii considers civil unions | VailDaily.com

Hawaii considers civil unions

AP PhotoAs high waves hit Hawaii's shores, Democratic lawmakers are pushing to legalize civil unions that would give same-sex couple many of the rights of marriage.

HONOLULU (AP) – Trying to avoid a heated battle over gay marriage, Hawaii lawmakers are considering a renewed push to grant same-sex couples similar benefits through civil unions.

Democratic legislators, who hold overwhelming majorities in both the state House and Senate, are supporting the civil union proposal as one of the party’s top priorities for this year’s legislative session. If it passes, Hawaii would become only the fifth state to recognize either civil unions or gay marriage.

“Committed couples, regardless of their sexual preference or orientation, should have the same rights. That’s the bottom line ” we should treat people equally,” said Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser. “There’s broad support among Democratic party members.”

Republican Gov. Linda Lingle won’t take a position on a civil union bill until it is approved by the Legislature, said senior policy adviser Linda Smith.

“We’ll give every bill a fair look if and when it comes to her desk,” Smith said.

Hawaii nearly legalized gay marriages more than a decade ago before stiff public opposition came from family advocacy groups, the Catholic church and the Mormon church.

A decision by the Hawaii Supreme Court would have allowed same-sex marriages, but a 1998 constitutional amendment and a law defined marriage as between two people of opposite sexes.

This year, the civil union bill hasn’t yet generated a similar public outcry.

The Catholic church in Hawaii is opposing the idea. A spokeswoman for the Mormon church in Utah said she is not aware of any institutional involvement in Hawaii’s civil union debate.

“The people of Hawaii … support the traditional definition of marriage, and they didn’t want to see marriage redefined,” said Kelly Rosati, a spokeswoman for the Hawaii Catholic church and executive director for the Hawaii Family Forum. “I don’t think there’s an appetite to take this on.”

This civil union proposal would grant same-sex couples the same rights and benefits as married couples, said Hooser, D-Kauai-Niihau. Hawaii already gives some rights ” in areas of insurance, property, pension and hospital visitation ” to same-sex partners through its reciprocal benefits law.

Vermont and Connecticut already have civil union laws and New Jersey’s will take effect next month. Massachusetts is the only state to allow same-sex marriages.

“Legalizing civil unions is nothing more than trying to legalize same-sex marriage except by a different name,” said Sen. Mike Gabbard, R-Kalaeloa-Makakilo, who led the Alliance for Traditional Marriage’s fight against gay marriage in the 90s. “We shouldn’t let politicians make a mockery out of very important institutions, which are marriage and democracy.”

One chief opponent of gay marriages, Debi Hartmann, said she is now supporting the civil union legislation because it does not interfere with the existing definition of marriage between a man and a woman.

“There was a bitter wall between us 10 years ago. It was us and them. It was a war zone, and there were no diplomatic relations,” said William Woods-Bateman, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Education and Advocacy Foundation. “I think we’ve found common ground. … The world has moved on.”

The bill will still need to gather momentum before it can be passed.

Rep. Blake Oshiro said many lawmakers may be afraid to take a stand on such a politically dangerous topic unless they’re sure it will pass. The civil union bill only has two sponsors in the House so far _ Oshiro and Speaker of the House Calvin Say ” although it has multiple sponsors in the Senate.

“My general sense is that most people do support it, but whether they would want it brought forth and voted on is another consideration,” said Oshiro, D-Aiea-Halawa. “I’m going to keep working to try and get it heard.”

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