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'Today is an amazing day'

Civil union supporters rejoice, opponents lament the new law

By B.J. Reyes

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 08:16 p.m. HST, Feb 24, 2011


Thinking back to 1998, Renae Hamilton says she can recall the bitter and divisive campaign she went through in trying to gain marriage rights for same-sex couples through the ballot box.

CIVIL UNIONS PROVISIONS

» Allows all couples regardless of sex to form a civil union, a legal status with all the rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities as traditional marriage.

» Clarifies that because civil unions would not be recognized under federal law, certain provisions of the Internal Revenue Code applying to husbands and wives in Hawaii apply with the same force and effect to partners in civil unions.

» Family Court will have jurisdiction in matters of annulment, divorce and separation in civil unions, as the court does over marriages.

» Effective date of Jan. 1, when the first civil unions could take place.

"You almost have flashbacks of it -- of how ugly it was -- in many ways, on every island," said Hamilton, 51, executive director of the YWCA of Kauai.

Yesterday, as she and her partner, Noelle Cambeilh, witnessed history with the governor's approval of a measure to legalize civil unions, Hamilton said those bitter memories can now be replaced with happier ones.

"It's, I think, a real affirmation and belief of: You don't give up -- things can happen," she said. "It's been a long road, but through people's efforts across the state, today is an amazing day."

The sentiment was shared by gay rights advocates and supporters yesterday as Gov. Neil Abercrombie affixed his signature to the legislation (the first bill signing of his career) approving civil unions and making Hawaii the seventh state to grant most of the same rights and benefits of traditional marriage to same-sex couples.

"For me, this bill represents equal rights for everyone in Hawaii -- everyone who comes here," Abercrombie said. "This is, to me, the essence of the aloha spirit."

A celebratory crowd of about 150 invited guests to Washington Place gave Abercrombie a standing ovation -- and cries of "Thank you, governor!" -- as he declared the Senate Bill 232 signed into law.

The ceremony was broadcast live on television and the Internet as Abercrombie, a Democrat who campaigned on a promise to sign the bill if it reached his desk, reversed the decision made by his Republican predecessor.

"I think it's amazing that we've joined a small, but ever-growing group of states that are recognizing equality," said Rep. Blake Oshiro (D, Aiea-Halawa), the House majority leader and primary sponsor of the legislation. "I'm proud that we've taken that major step forward."

But as supporters applauded the bill that placed Hawaii a step closer to same-sex marriage, opponents lamented and denounced the bill signing for the very same reason.

"It's a sad day for the people of Hawaii," said Sen. Mike Gabbard (D, Kalaeloa-Makakilo), who has been at the forefront of opposition for gay marriage since the 1990s. "Politicians have shown that they just don't care about the views and values of the majority of Hawaii's residents.

"Civil unions is same-sex marriage with a different name," Gabbard said. "The people of Hawaii made it clear that they're against civil unions and same-sex marriage and the politicians have basically said, 'To hell with you.'"

Conservative groups including the Hawaii Family Forum and the Hawaii Catholic Conference issued similar statements, arguing the matter is far from over, as they expect gay rights groups to continue the drive for same-sex marriage.

"The activists lobbying for civil unions really want same-sex marriage in Hawaii," said Allen Cardines Jr., executive director of the Hawaii Family Forum. "We know it, they know it, and the people of Hawaii have a right to know it."

Abercrombie's approval comes less than a year after then-Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed a similar measure.

Lingle had characterized it as same-sex marriage by another name, which she opposed, saying the issue was too important for government to decide and should be put to the people for a vote. She vetoed the proposal in July.

Advocates, buoyed by the results of the 2010 elections, which saw civil union opponents fail in their attempts to unseat supportive lawmakers, brought the issue back. With backing in both chambers once again, lawmakers sought to take advantage of the all-around consensus and move quickly on the measure.

The new law allows all couples regardless of sex to enter into a civil union, a legal status with all the rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities as traditional marriage. The bill contains specific provisions clarifying implementation for the state Department of Health.

Couples would be allowed to form civil unions on Jan. 1.

"Civil unions are not marriage, but they at least provide -- on a state level -- the concrete, tangible, legal rights and responsibilities of marriage," said Alan Spector, co-chairman of the advocacy group Equality Hawaii. "We still don't have the social significance and the social meaning of marriage ... but getting us to civil unions -- psychologically and legally -- is such a major barrier to cross."

Linda Hamilton Krieger, a University of Hawaii professor, attended the signing ceremony with her wife, Kathleen Sands. The couple were married in Massachusetts in 2007. Krieger said all couples deserve the psychological benefit of having a relationship under law.

"It just feels different to be married than not to be married," said Krieger, 54. "It's something that's very hard to describe, but something that's very precious."

Massachusetts is among five states and Washington, D.C., that allow same-sex marriage.

Hawaii has figured prominently in the national gay rights movement since the early 1990s, when the state Supreme Court nearly legalized gay marriage.

The 1993 ruling would have made Hawaii the first state to allow gay couples to wed, but it did not take effect as voters were given a chance to decide the matter. They responded in 1998 by overwhelmingly approving the nation's first "defense of marriage" state constitutional amendment, giving the Legislature the authority to define marriage as between one man and one woman but leaving the door open for civil unions.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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