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Candidates for governor in conflict on civil unions, other social issues

By Derrick DePledge

LAST UPDATED: 10:28 p.m. HST, Oct 21, 2010

Republican James "Duke" Aiona said if he wins the gubernatorial election, he will propose a constitutional amendment in 2012 to ask voters whether marriage should be defined as between a man and a woman.

Neil Abercrombie, the Democratic candidate, said if he becomes governor, he will sign a civil unions bill into law if passed again by the state Legislature, but believes the state should not take up the issue of same-sex marriage.

The divide over civil unions is among the widest between the two major candidates for governor, and their views provide some insight about how they would handle emotion-laden social policy questions if elected.

Through the past decade, civil unions and physician-assisted suicide have been the two main social policy issues to come before the Legislature. A civil unions bill passed the Legislature this year but was vetoed by Gov. Linda Lingle. A physician-assisted suicide bill cleared the state House but failed in the state Senate on the last day of the 2002 session. The last debate by lawmakers on assisted suicide was in 2007.

Aiona equates civil unions with same-sex marriage. He does not consider marriage a civil right, so he is comfortable putting the question on the ballot.

He says the state could expand a reciprocal beneficiaries law to address any inequality for same-sex couples.


Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie and Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona hold sharply different views on civil unions but agree that the state Legislature should not take up physician-assisted suicide. Civil unions and physician-assisted suicide have been the two main social policy issues to come before the Legislature in the past decade.


» Promises to sign a civil unions bill into law if passed again by the state Legislature.
» Considers civil unions a civil rights issue.
» Says state government should not take up same-sex marriage.
» Says state government should not take up physician-assisted suicide.


» Vows to veto a civil unions bill if passed again by the state Legislature.
» Does not consider civil unions a civil rights issue.
» Would expand the state's reciprocal beneficiaries law to address any inequality for same-sex couples.
» Would propose a constitutional amendment asking voters in 2012 whether marriage should be defined as between a man and a woman.
» Opposes same-sex marriage.
» Opposes physician-assisted suicide.

"We have reciprocal beneficiaries in the law right now, and we can use that provision -- that piece of the law -- if they (civil union advocates) have any issues on civil rights," he said.

Abercrombie sees civil unions as separate from same-sex marriage.

"It's a civil rights bill that affected everybody equally regardless of their gender, regardless of their sexual orientation. It was a bill about civil rights and responsibilities under the Constitution, and did not constitute -- in my judgment -- anything approaching a revision or recalculation or redefinition of marriage," he said of the bill, which would have applied to both same-sex and heterosexual couples.

Abercrombie supported a constitutional amendment voters approved in 1998 that gave the Legislature the power to reserve marriage for a man and a woman because he thought lawmakers should have that responsibility. He said he does not think the state should reopen the debate on same-sex marriage, an issue that may ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The former congressman said a debate on same-sex marriage would be needlessly divisive and counterproductive. He said his views are that people should be entitled "to make any arrangement they want with their lives."

While they hold different views on civil unions, neither candidate wants the Legislature to take up physician-assisted suicide.

Lt. Gov. Aiona, a Catholic, said he has seen several family members -- including his late mother-in-law -- struggle with debilitating illness and understands the emotions involved in end-of-life decisions. But he said physician-assisted suicide does not preserve the sanctity of life.

"It cuts across not only just basic values that we have and morals, but it's also, in regards to my religion -- the sanctity of life is foremost," he said.

Abercrombie said physician-assisted suicide, like same-sex marriage, would be too divisive an issue. He said the elderly population is growing as people live longer, so policymakers should focus on hospice and palliative care.

"We need to be supportive of families and physicians and competent medical personnel being able to make decisions ahead of time with regard to the end of life," he said.

Abercrombie, who said he was confirmed as an Episcopalian, said he has never felt that it was important to have an institutional foundation to religion. But he said there is a spiritual element -- a sense of humanity -- to his approach to social policy.

"I hope that such spiritual reflection, as I've engaged in in my life, if it's taught me anything, it's taught me to be very wary of judging others too harshly and judging myself too easily," he said. "I'm much less inclined to give myself good marks."

House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro (D, Aiea-Halawa Valley-Aiea Heights) said that if re-elected he will introduce civil unions and physician-assisted suicide bills next session.

"I think it's still something that deserves public discussion and debate," Oshiro said.

Lawmakers would likely move a civil unions bill with a majority if Abercrombie is governor, since he says he would sign it into law, but would likely want a two-thirds' vote necessary to override a veto under Aiona. The House fell short of a veto-proof vote this year.

Donald Bentz, the treasurer of Equality Hawaii, said the debates at the Legislature during the past two sessions have helped advocates make the argument that civil unions are a civil rights issue.

"It has opened the door for a lot of education," he said.

Allen Cardines Jr., a pastor at Hope Chapel Nanakuli and the executive director of the Hawaii Family Forum, said activists will continue to oppose civil unions and physician-assisted suicide.

"We believe that life is precious from conception to natural death," he said.

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