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Couples sue state over civil unions

The lawsuit claims that gays and lesbians were denied equal rights

By B.J. Reyes

LAST UPDATED: 3:56 p.m. HST, Jul 29, 2010

Having been together since 2005, Sean Smith and Kale Taylor are like many committed couples -- they want to make things official.

"It's what people do," said Smith, 32. "It's what all our friends do."

"The closer we got to civil unions, it's become a little more important to us to have (a commitment) ceremony and have all our family involved," Smith said. "We really thought we were close to being able to have a civil union."

Gov. Linda Lingle's veto of House Bill 444 ended the possibility.

Now Smith and Taylor, 29, are among six couples suing the state, alleging it has failed to provide equal rights to gays and lesbians short of marriage. The lawsuit, being filed today in Circuit Court, asks the court to step in where the Legislature did not and reverse the effect of Lingle's veto.

"We're seeking to secure equal legal protections and legal responsibilities for same-sex couples under the civil law," said Jennifer Pizer, an attorney for Lambda Legal, one of three co-counsels filing the complaint.

The lawsuit seeks a court order that same-sex couples be allowed to enter a legal status, known as a civil union, that would have the same legal rights and responsibilities that other couples can acquire through marriage.

"It's not marriage," Pizer said. "It's a different system, separate from marriage, but it should provide the same legal tools so that a same-sex couple has a way to take care of each other that has all the same legal tools that other couples can have."

Attorney General Mark Bennett's office declined comment yesterday because it had not yet seen a copy of the court filing.

Voters approved a state constitutional amendment in 1998 that gave the Legislature the power to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

House Bill 444 would have given same-sex and heterosexual couples who enter into civil unions the same rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities as marriage under state law. Civil unions would not have been recognized under federal law, or by other states that do not have similar civil-unions laws, and the legal distinction would not have had the same social, cultural or religious significance as marriage.

Lingle vetoed the bill July 6, describing civil unions as same-sex marriage -- which she opposes -- by another name and calling on the Legislature to put the issue to a popular vote.

"This decision is of such societal significance that the people of Hawaii deserve the right to directly decide whether the changes contemplated by House Bill No. 444 should become law," Lingle said in her veto message.

Linda Hamilton Krieger, who also is a plaintiff in the lawsuit with her partner, Kathleen Sands, calls the argument flawed.

"In this country, we don't put people's' fundamental rights up to a popular vote," said Krieger, 56. "If we did that, our schools would probably still be segregated."

But unlike Smith and Taylor, Krieger and Sands know what it is like to be married. The two were wed in Massachusetts in 2007, three years after the state legalized same-sex marriage.

"My sense is that people realized, 'You know, gay people got married and the sky did not fall in,'" Krieger said of attitudes in Massachusetts. "There was no moral collapse. There was no moral panic. People went about their lives and they took care of each other the same way heterosexual families do."

The couple moved to Hawaii, where Krieger was born and grew up, three years ago and registered as reciprocal beneficiaries under state law, which grants some, but not all, of the rights and privileges of marriage.

"The current system has all these holes," Pizer said. "It's very impractical and ineffective."

For Krieger, the lawsuit is about giving all gay couples and families the sense of inclusion and ohana that Hawaii offers.

"It's a very strange and painful experience to go from a place where you are married -- where you are included in that moral circle -- to then going home to the place that you most love and feel most a part of, and then be stripped of your marriage," she said. "That's been very, very difficult."

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