Six same-sex couples have sued the state of Hawaii seeking the equivalent rights and responsibilities of marriage, just weeks after Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed a civil unions bill passed by the state legislature.
Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii filed suit on Thursday and represent four lesbian couples and two gay male couples in the state; two of the six couples have children.
The suit does not seek marriage rights, as state voters approved in 1998 a constitutional amendment allowing the legislature to limit marriage to heterosexual couples. Rather, it seeks equal rights and responsibilities for same-sex couples who currently are offered limited protections known as reciprocal beneficiary arrangements, available to adults who cannot marry under state law.
“The Hawaii constitution, like every state constitution, has an equality guarantee,” said Lambda Legal national marriage project director Jennifer C. Pizer. “Voters changed the constitution in 1998 with respect to marriage, but the legislature and the court specifically underscored that the equality guarantee only changed in regards to marriage.”
Current protections offered for reciprocal beneficiaries form a confusing patchwork that leaves many gay and lesbian couples unsure of their rights, Pizer said.
According to the legal complaint, many private employers defer to the state's definition of marital status when conferring benefits, which can result in the denial of health insurance, for example, to partners of gay and lesbian employees. Gays are also denied access to family court upon dissolution of a relationship, where issues such as alimony, property division, and child custody are addressed.
After Lingle’s veto of a bill that would have granted comprehensive rights and responsibilities for same-sex couples — and ended state-sanctioned second-class citizenship for Hawaii's gays and lesbians — “It’s time to pose the question to the state: What is the excuse for withholding these other important protections?” Pizer said.
In selecting the plaintiffs in this suit, Pizer said the legal team sought “to illustrate a range of different issues that are legally relevant and to show a breadth of people in the community in terms of age and financial status, people who have different needs depending on the stage of life that they’re at.”
The Hawaii lawsuit comes amid a flurry of legal activity on state and federal levels regarding the rights of same-sex couples. Last week the ACLU filed suit on behalf of seven gay couples seeking domestic-partnership rights in Montana, which has a constitutional ban on gay marriage. A federal judge in Massachusetts earlier this month struck down a critical portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, while another federal judge in San Francisco is soon expected to issue a decision in a challenge to Proposition 8, the 2008 California ballot initiative that stripped same-sex couples of the right to marry.
The Montana case is similar to the Hawaii suit in that it asks the court to enforce equality guarantees as set forth in the state constitution. Where they differ in part, Pizer said, is that Hawaii has some protections, however limited, available to same-sex couples, while Montana offers none. "Hawaii has long been a battleground on issues affecting same-sex couples. This [suit] is a continuation of work that Lambda has been deeply involved in for two decades," she said.
Plaintiff Sean Smith, a 32-year-old attorney in Honolulu, said he and his partner of five years, Kale Taylor, had thought Lingle would have allowed the civil unions bill to go into effect without signing or vetoing the legislation.
The couple, who became reciprocal beneficiaries in 2006, had begun talking about a ceremony and were shocked when Lingle decided to veto the bill, Smith said. “There was a little bit of irony and a little bit of hurt mixed together — people are always asking us when we’re getting married,” he said.
The case is Young v. Lingle. Attorneys representing the six couples include Pizer and Tara Borelli of Lambda and Lois Perrin, Daniel Gluck, and Laurie A. Temple of the ACLU.
The complaint is available here on Lambda Legal's website.