POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 17, 2011
Until yesterday, Tim Earhart had never been to the Legislature to witness a hearing, floor vote or any other action related to civil unions.
The president of Dignity USA-Honolulu, who founded what he called the first "gay church" when he moved to Hawaii 41 years ago, was moved to tears at what he witnessed.
"I, with my own two eyes and ears, got to witness this historic moment when lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning people are now elevated to the status of ordinary citizens," said Earhart, 64.
"We no longer have to apologize for loving one another."
More than seven months after Republican Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed a similar measure, civil-unions supporters celebrated at the state Capitol because the Senate gave final legislative approval to a bill that clears the way for same-sex couples to receive virtually all the same rights and benefits of traditional marriage.
By a vote of 18-5, the chamber approved Senate Bill 232, legalizing civil unions in Hawaii.
The measure now goes to Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who supports civil unions and has promised to sign the bill into law.
By law, the governor has 10 days from the time the bill reaches his desk to decide on the bill, putting his deadline on or about March 3.
The governor's office said details on the bill's signing were forthcoming. Abercrombie is scheduled to travel to Washington, D.C., next week for the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association from Feb. 26-28.
In a written statement, Abercrombie said civil unions "respect our diversity, protect people's privacy, and reinforce our core values of equality and aloha."
"This has been an emotional process for everyone involved, but that process is now ended," he added. "Everyone has been heard; all points of view respected.
"For me, this bill represents equal rights for all the people of Hawaii."
And while "anything can happen" is the mantra often heard among veteran Capitol watchers, most supporters seemed unworried.
"No concerns whatsoever," said Alan Spector, co-chairman of Equality Hawaii. "The bill is passed and Gov. Abercrombie has promised to sign it.
"It was one of his campaign promises. He supports this. We have absolutely nothing to worry about."
Once signed into law, couples would be able to enter civil unions starting Jan. 1.
Hawaii would become the seventh state to grant civil unions to same-sex couples without authorizing marriage itself. Five states and Washington, D.C., permit same-sex marriage.
Senate Bill 232 allows all couples -- same-sex and heterosexual -- to enter into a civil union, a legal status with all the rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities as traditional marriage.
It is largely similar to a bill passed by the Legislature last year but vetoed by Lingle, who characterized it as same-sex marriage by another name, which she opposed.
With support for the bill in both chambers again this year, lawmakers sought to take advantage of the consensus and fast-track the bill to the governor and move on to more pressing matters.
Former City Councilman Gary Okino, a civil-unions opponent who lost his bid for state House last year, said opponents plan to follow the implementation of the bill and see what impact it has.
Okino had testified against the bill, citing concerns of families worried that same-sex lifestyles would be taught to public-school students with no option for parents to remove their child.
"I think we've just got to keep an eye out to see if that actually happens or if the schools try to put in some of these agendas that are indoctrinating our children," he said. "It's kind of a wait-and-see and trying to make sure they don't take any kind of action to actually change that to same-sex marriage."
Floor debate was spirited but not marked by some of the more vitriolic rhetoric that characterized past floor actions.
The vote came the same day the Senate gave final, unanimous approval to Abercrombie's appointment of Circuit Judge Sabrina McKenna to the state Supreme Court. McKenna, who is openly gay, attended the session with her partner and their three children for the vote on her confirmation.
Sen. Clayton Hee, Judiciary Committee chairman, held up McKenna as an example of someone who would be a "recipient of justice" by the Senate's approval of civil unions.
"We are here on a very momentous occasion, not only to seat a new justice, but to give justice to that justice," said Hee (D, Kahuku-Kaneohe).
Sen. Sam Slom, the chamber's only Republican, supported McKenna but opposed the civil-unions measure, saying they were separate matters and calling it inappropriate for Hee to raise it as an issue.
"I supported that individual and that woman because of her absolute qualifications and expertise. Nothing else," said Slom (R, Diamond Head-Hawaii Kai).
He opposed the civil-unions bill, arguing that the Legislature should be spending its time on economic matters, not social issues.
Sen. Mike Gabbard (D, Kalaeloa-Makakilo) urged colleagues to delay passage of the bill and consider amendments that would allow blood relatives to enter into civil unions. He cited as an example a woman taking care of her elderly, disabled father, and two sisters in their 50s who live together and have adopted two children.
He argued many relatives in similar situations would also benefit from the tax status and other benefits conveyed upon a couple in a civil union.
"Why are people related by blood being discriminated against?" Gabbard said.
Supporters argued it was nothing more than a stall tactic and invited those who felt similarly to introduce an amendment to the bill.
"Today is a momentous day," Hee said. "There is no denying that by this action Hawaii takes a significant step toward true equality."