Friday, January 22, 2010

Hawai'i Senate passes civil-unions bill with veto-proof majority, 18-7

The Honolulu Advertiser reports that the state Senate has passed the civil unions legislation (HB 444) by a veto-proof majority, even though it stalled there last year. "The bill would allow same-sex and heterosexual couples to enter into civil unions and receive the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as marriage under state law." Now it's up to the state House leadership to decide whether enough House members will vote in favor to reach a two-thirds majority.

[01/24/10 update: The Honolulu Advertiser has an insightful article on the legislation's historical context.]

The legislation's progress represents a significant measure of changing public opinion, notwithstanding a recent display of opposition by participants in the Hawai'i Family Forum. Establishing civil unions would have been unthinkable in 1998, when Hawai'ian voters approved a constitutional amendment (Art. I, Sec.23) giving the legislature "power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples." At the time, the legislature passed a "reciprocal beneficiaries" law that gave non-traditional families, including same-sex couples, some of the benefits and protections of marriage. (See this Lambda Legal page for more context.)

Of course, the Perry plaintiffs are contesting the constitutionality of bans on same-sex marriage, and they have have targeted, at the core of their lawsuit, a domestic partnership law having the same purpose as HB 444. They maintain that any separate legal status for same-sex couples - even one conferring equal benefits - deprives them of real equality. Even if the Perry plaintiffs do not succeed, trial testimony over the last two weeks may have the unintended effect of aiding efforts to establish domestic partnerships or civil unions, especially in super-DOMA states. These legal statuses could then be seen, not as permanent alternatives to marriage, but as stopgap means to bring same-sex couples much-needed benefits and protections, and to build growing public support for marriage equality.

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