POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 15, 2011
The state Senate is poised to take a final vote today on an amended form of its measure to establish civil unions as a means of offering protections of state law to all, including same-sex couples who are ineligible under that law to be married.
In a sense, that vote was taken in November. The issue of civil unions has divided the community and became a focal point in many legislative races. It was also a demarcation line in the gubernatorial contest, and Neil Abercrombie made it clear before his election that he would sign a measure such as Senate Bill 232. Overwhelmingly the candidates in the House and Senate who backed civil unions won the vote, so the pathway to the bill's passage seemed clear on election night.
Even if the pending passage and enactment of civil unions is now all but assured -- the Senate had previously approved the measure 19-6 -- Hawaii's arrival at this juncture is still an occasion to celebrate. Once it becomes law, the state will have taken a significant step toward meeting a core obligation: equal treatment of all its citizens.
Governments have provided protections to marriages, a practice that benefits society by encouraging the formation of stable households. By religious belief and historical tradition, marriage has been defined as a heterosexual relationship, which is the basis of the heated opposition to same-sex marriage. In Hawaii, this particular battle has gone on since the 1990s, culminating in a constitutional amendment and statute enabling marriages to be limited to heterosexual couples.
Lawmakers recognized that this deprived committed same-sex couples of access to legal protections the state can provide relating to property, taxation, inheritance and a myriad other concerns. The reciprocal beneficiaries law was passed to provide some of these, but too many inequities remained.
The solution, first proposed in last year's legislative session, is a good one: Provide civil unions as a status in which the same state benefits provided to spouses in a marriage go to these partners, regardless of sexual orientation.
SB 232 defines the eligible class largely by specifying the exclusions: Blood relatives, minors, partners already in another civil union and couples currently in reciprocal beneficiary relationships are ineligible.
Both same-sex and opposite-sex couples can get licenses.
Remaining silent on the question of gender is the right approach. The private matter of sexual orientation need not figure into a law seeking to achieve the public-policy goal of equal access to state benefits and protections.
There are sure to be hiccups in the law once it takes effect Jan. 1, 2012, but the state House has done a good job anticipating many of these in its proposed amendments. These changes largely clarify that the same family courts have jurisdiction over ending a civil union as handle marriage annulments and divorces; that the same laws on state taxation apply; that civil unions from other jurisdictions are recognized here, provided they meet the basic eligibility rules.
Other issues may arise, but advocates believe most can be addressed through writing regulations. For example, the state should adopt a rule allowing reciprocal beneficiaries to end that relationship at the same time a civil union is solemnized. This way it can prevent a gap that results if the couple relinquishes one set of legal protections before the broader umbrella of a civil union can be in place.
Opponents to the bill believe it to be a Trojan horse through which proponents of same-sex marriage will overcome the state's ban. It's likely that many advocates do favor same-sex marriage, but given that there is a federal ban in place as well, a much broader, national discussion will have to take place before that issue comes up.
Meanwhile, improving the assurance of equal treatment does not expose a vulnerability but instead strengthens Hawaii as a state that looks out for the interests of all its people. Passing SB 232 will become a point at which Hawaii looks back with pride.