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Civil unions bill fails to shift voters

Supporters of the measure align with Abercrombie; those opposed, with Aiona

By Derrick DePledge

LAST UPDATED: 2:44 a.m. HST, Oct 27, 2010

Voters are torn over civil unions.

A new Hawaii Poll found that 48 percent generally support a civil unions bill passed by the state Legislature and vetoed by Gov. Linda Lingle this year, while 44 percent oppose the bill and 9 percent are undecided. The margin of error was 4 percentage points.

Gay activists and religious conservatives tried to make civil unions an issue in the September primary and November general election, but with voters so divided, it is unlikely the issue alone will swing many campaigns.

"It sounds like it's split right down the middle. That probably does pretty much reflect where most folks are," said Dan Boylan, a political analyst and former University of Hawaii-West Oahu history professor. "It's a really complex issue."

House Bill 444 would have given same-sex and heterosexual couples the ability to enter into civil unions and receive the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as marriage under state law. The state Constitution gives the state Legislature the power to define marriage as between a man and woman. The bill would not have changed that definition.

Gay activists see the bill as a civil rights issue that would help end discrimination of gay couples under state law. Religious conservatives believe that for all practical purposes civil unions and marriage would be the same.

"I think some people have confused civil unions with same-sex marriage largely because one side in this dispute is constantly calling it same-sex marriage," Boylan said. "And of course, constitutionally, we can't call it that. We have to call it civil unions."

Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, the Democratic candidate for governor, has said he would sign the bill into law. Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, the Republican candidate, backed Lingle's veto and wants to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2012, asking voters whether marriage should be reserved between a man and a woman. The amendment would take the power to define marriage away from the Legislature and embed the definition in the state Constitution.

The Hawaii Poll found that people who support civil unions favor Abercrombie over Aiona 73 percent to 21 percent. People who oppose civil unions like Aiona over Abercrombie 67 percent to 28 percent.

The poll was taken by Ward Research for the Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now among 608 likely voters statewide. The telephone interviews were conducted between Oct. 12 and 19.

Civil unions, according to the poll, drew support across many gender, ethnic and income categories. Hawaiian, Filipino, male and low-income voters were opposed. Nonunion households were split.

The largest differences were partisan: Sixty-one percent of Democrats favored the bill, while 31 percent were opposed. Seventy-two percent of Republicans were opposed, while 20 percent backed the bill.

While civil unions is one of the issues that divide Abercrombie and Aiona in the governor's race, politically, the issue could have more influence in close state House or Senate campaigns where the candidates are less known than at the top of the ticket.

Many Republican House and Senate candidates have made civil unions a dominant issue in their campaigns, while many Democrats have said the bill should be judged as one of many that have come before the Legislature.

Christian activists have started distributing red "No on HB444" signs in several communities.

State House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro (D, Aiea-Halawa Valley-Aiea Heights), the bill's sponsor, has said he would introduce the bill again next session if he is re-elected.

Tambry Young, who serves on the board of Citizens for Equal Rights, said the poll results are positive. She said the future strategy for the bill is tied to whether Abercrombie or Aiona is the next governor.

"We think we're a lot closer if Neil gets in," she said. "We'll be a lot farther if Aiona gets in."

Memito Ablan, a Pearl City Realtor, with his friends recently formed the United Coalition Against HB444, the group behind the red signs. The larger and more established Hawaii Family Forum and the Hawaii Christian Coalition have done the main outreach with the religious community.

"We just decided to go for it," Ablan said. "We're just telling the public to be aware. We don't want HB444 to come up again."


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