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Thursday, April 24, 2014         

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To have ... or to hold

The emotional nature of civil unions has Gov. Linda Lingle giving herself the full amount of time available by law to make, then explain her decision

By Derrick DePledge

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Cecilia and John Betham got to know each other after being introduced at work 11 years ago. Within six months, John proposed. Six months later, they were married.

For the Aiea couple, marriage between a man and a woman is sacred, a lifelong union and one of the seven sacraments Catholics revere.

"We were both raised in what I think were strong Samoan Catholic families," Cecilia Betham, who works in customer service, explained. "So that was the norm."

Kimi and Diane Racine met at a 12-step program for drug abuse 21 years ago. Kimi had only dated men before Diane, and had a young son, but she felt a connection. Two years later, the couple had a commitment ceremony at a religious science church.

"I fell in love with the person," said Kimi Racine, a restaurant manager who lives in Kapolei with Diane, a skills trainer for students with special needs. "She was just everything that I'd ever wanted in a man. She just happened to be a woman."

Gov. Linda Lingle will have couples like the Bethams and the Racines in mind when she decides on civil unions. The governor is expected to put the bill on a potential veto list today, which will give her until July 6 to determine whether to sign, veto or allow the bill to become law without her signature.

Through Friday, the governor had received nearly 20,000 letters, e-mails, faxes and telephone calls on the bill, more correspondence than her advisers can recall on any other legislation during her eight years in office. Eighty-five percent of the people who have contacted the governor want her to veto the bill, according to her staff.

The bill would permit same-sex and heterosexual couples to enter into civil unions and receive the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as marriage under state law.

Lingle, who has met privately with advocates and opponents of the bill at the state Capitol, has been moved by many of the personal stories. The governor has said that part of the reason she likely will take the full amount of time available under state law -- 45 working days from the end of session in April -- is because she wants to find the right words to explain her decision.

Placing the bill on the veto list is another signal Lingle is leaning toward a veto. The governor has described civil unions as drafted in the bill as equivalent to same-sex marriage, which she opposes.

But Lingle has also spoken of the experience of Gov. John Burns, a devout Catholic who let an abortion bill become law without his signature in 1970.

Her deliberations -- and the public pressure -- are also comparable to a 2005 bill that gave counties the option of adding a general-excise tax surcharge for mass transit. Lingle put the bill on the veto list and promised a veto because the state, not the counties, would collect the tax. But the governor allowed the bill to become law without her signature after state House and Senate leaders agreed to review the tax collection issue during the following session.

(Honolulu has used the tax surcharge to help finance the city's $5.5 billion rail project. The state is still collecting the tax surcharge.)

While lobbying on the mass transit surcharge was intense, it was not as emotional as it has been with civil unions. Advocates hope the bill is a step toward marriage equality. Opponents believe it could weaken marriage as an institution.

"I've grown up to know that it's wrong," Cecilia Betham said.

Catholics are taught homosexuality is unnatural and engaging in homosexual acts is sinful. But they are also taught compassion. Betham, whose late brother was gay, is tolerant.

"I knew he had a fight between his faith and what he wanted," she said of her brother, who died of a heart attack at 36. "It was like two lives."

Betham said she was comfortable around her brother and his partner, but had difficulty explaining their relationship to her children. Betham has three children, including one from a previous relationship.

At first, Betham and her husband told the children the gay men were just friends. Later, they explained that the relationship went deeper.

Betham said she wants to preserve traditional marriage so her children can have what she and her husband share. "I guess we just want to see the same for our children," she said. "It's sacred, just like every other sacrament in our church."

John Betham, a foreman, believes people have grown to accept same-sex relationships. He predicts, in a generation, society probably will see civil unions in the same light as civil rights.

"And that's too bad," Cecilia Betham said.

Kimi Racine and her partner, Diane, have made a spiritual connection to one another. But they lack the legal recognition. They would likely enter into a civil union if the bill becomes law.

"I knew that when the right person came along, that I would know it," Kimi Racine said. "No matter what sex that person would end up being, I would feel a connection."

Kimi legally changed her and her son's last name to Racine after the commitment ceremony, a bond that has brought a formality to their relationship.

Sober for more than two decades, the Racines have served as foster parents and have adopted two foster children -- both girls -- as their own.

Racine believes society eventually will accept civil unions as a civil right. "I do. I absolutely do. I would love to see it happen," she said.

She just hopes she does not have to wait too long. Two of her children are now adults.

"Neither one of them was ever given the opportunity to legally feel like their parents were legitimate," she said.






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