Hawaii residents spar over civil unions legislation

BY admin

February 21 2004 1:00 AM ET

Gay rights advocates in Hawaii squared off Thursday night in an emotional battle against opponents of a house bill to legalize same-sex unions. But action on the legislation and a companion bill banning housing discrimination based on sexual orientation was deferred by the house judiciary committee, which did not have a quorum. If the measures do not move forward by Friday, they are likely dead for the session.

About 150 people crowded into a capitol conference room for the hearing on House Bill 1024, which would extend to gay couples in same-sex unions some of the state-level rights and protections afforded to married couples. "They are American citizens," said Carolyn Martinez Golojuch, president of PFLAG-Oahu, a gay advocacy group. "We can go to another country and bring freedom. We can't bring freedom to our own citizens sitting in this room?"

Supporters said the civil unions legislation would not give gays the same rights afforded straight couples, but would be a step toward equality. But opponents--some of whom protested with signs outside the conference room--said passage of the bill equated to gay marriage and the erosion of the core unit of American society. "This bill is an evil one," said Daniel McGivern, president of Pro-Family Hawaii. "The effect," he said, "is to destroy the family."

House Bill 1024 has reemerged at the capitol, house Democratic leaders said, partly because of the debate surrounding the issue that's flared up nationally. It comes 11 years after the state supreme court's landmark decision that a same-sex marriage ban violated the state constitution. A 1994 law passed by the legislature limited marriage to straight couples. Two years later, circuit judge Kevin Chang said the state could not justify that limitation and ordered it to grant marriage licenses to the couples. He suspended his decision pending an appeal to the Hawaii supreme court. Hawaii voters fought the extension of rights to gays, overwhelmingly approving a constitutional amendment in 1998 giving the legislature the power to restrict marriage to straight couples.

Its companion, House Bill 547, would ban housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. More than an hour of testimony was heard on that legislation. The debate at the state Capitol--one that dragged on for 3-1/2 hours and featured dozens of speakers--comes as the gay marriage issue has reached new levels of exposure on the national scene. State gay rights advocates say the passage of the civil union provision would open up to same-sex couples 340 benefits available only to married couples. "This is not a religious matter," said Skip Burns, chair of the Civil Unions-Civil Rights Movement. "It is the responsibility of the state to respect and treat all its citizens fairly."

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