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Hawaii now seventh state to legalize civil unions

By B.J. Reyes

LAST UPDATED: 10:50 a.m. HST, Feb 24, 2011

Less than a year after seeing the push for civil unions vetoed, gay rights advocates cheered as Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed into law a bill legalizing civil unions and making Hawaii the seventh state to grant such privileges to same-sex couples.

Abercrombie signed the legislation at a ceremony today at historic Washington Place.

"E Komo Mai: It means all are welcome," Abercrombie said in remarks before signing the bill into law. "This signing today of this measure says to all of the world that they are welcome. That everyone is a brother or sister here in paradise."

"The legalization of civil unions in Hawaii represents in my mind equal rights for all people," he said.

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.

Not everyone was thrilled with the new law. 

"It's a sad day for the people of Hawaii," said Sen. Mike Gabbard. "Politicians have shown that they just don't care about the views and values of the majority of Hawaii's residents."

The Hawaii Catholic Conference issued a statement expressing disappointment. "Passage of this legislation is just a step towards the legalization of same-sex marriage," read the statement.

Gov. Linda 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.

But 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 under a more favorable climate.

With support in both chambers, lawmakers sought to take advantage of the all-around consensus and fast-track the bill.

Rep. Blake Oshiro, the House majority leader and primary sponsor, said he was proud of the accomplishment, but the passage only means that the Legislature can move on to more important matters such as the budget.

"So we have one big thing down and now we move on to the next fight, the next battle, the next big issue," said Oshiro (D, Aiea-Halawa).

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 the bill vetoed by Lingle, but contains specific provisions aimed at clarifying implementation for the state Department of Health.

Couples would be allowed to start entering into a civil union on Jan. 1.

"This bill has been a long time coming for committed couples in Hawaii who have been denied the basic right to take care of their families," said Laurie Temple, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii.

Approval of the bill also brings an end to a lawsuit filed by gay couples against the state last year after Lingle's veto, the ACLU said.

Gay rights advocacy group Lambda Legal and ACLU sued on behalf of six gay couples, alleging the state failed to provide equal rights to gays and lesbians short of marriage. 

Opponents have held prayer vigils at the Capitol this week in advance of the bill signing. 

Many have repeated Lingle's call for a vote and said the measure would lead to gay lifestyles being taught in public schools. Opponents also have called civil unions a gateway to the acceptance of same-sex marriage.

Hawaii has figured prominently in the national gay rights movement's efforts 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 same-sex couples to wed, but it did not take effect while 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.

Final approval of Hawaii's civil unions law came the same day as the Obama administration reversed its previous position and said it no longer would defend the constitutionality of the federal law banning recognition of same-sex marriage.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said President Barack Obama has concluded that the administration cannot defend the federal law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. He noted that the congressional debate during passage of the Defense of Marriage Act "contains numerous expressions reflecting moral disapproval of gays and lesbians and their intimate and family relationships — precisely the kind of stereotype-based thinking and animus" the Constitution is designed to guard against.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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