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Group backtracks on civil unions


The Hawaii Business Roundtable clarified yesterday that it has not taken a position on civil unions, responding to internal dissent and under pressure from gay rights advocates for urging Gov. Linda Lingle to veto the measure.

Gary K. Kai, the Roundtable’s executive director, sent a letter to Lingle explaining that an initial June 4 message urging a veto was only to express concerns regarding the administrative challenges of implementing civil unions.

Kai said the Roundtable opposes any form of discrimination, including any based on sexual orientation. "Unfortunately, the use of the word veto has become equivalent to some, as a position against civil unions," he wrote.

Kai had told the Star-Advertiser on Friday that the Roundtable’s executive committee had considered issuing a clarification but decided to stand by the initial message.

A growing number of the Roundtable’s influential members have moved to distance themselves from the executive committee’s veto request. The defectors included Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Time Warner Cable Inc., Marriott International Inc., Alexander & Baldwin Inc., Foodland and the University of Hawaii.

Gay rights advocates in Hawaii and on the mainland approached many of the Roundtable’s members and urged them to speak out against the veto request.

Kai, in an interview, said the Roundtable’s intent was only to address technical issues involved in implementing civil unions.

"The Roundtable has not taken a position on civil unions, and it won’t take a position on civil unions," he said. "It’s all about the technical issues."

Kai acknowledged, however, that "there was always some concern that it might be misinterpreted."

Alan Spector, legislative affairs co-chairman for Equality Hawaii, which supports civil unions, said the Roundtable could have asked Lingle or state lawmakers to clarify any technical issues about civil unions without going as far as urging a veto.

By calling for a veto, Spector said, the Roundtable was essentially opposing civil unions. Lingle has placed the bill on her potential veto list but said Monday she had not made up her mind. The governor has until July 6 to veto, sign or allow the bill to become law without her signature.

The bill would give same-sex and heterosexual couples who enter into civil unions the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as marriage under state law.

A coalition of gay rights groups — including Equality Hawaii, the Human Rights Campaign, Citizens for Equal Rights and PFLAG-Oahu — mobilized to pressure the Roundtable to backtrack.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay civil rights group, which is based in Washington, D.C., sent two activists to the islands to help respond to the Roundtable’s veto request.

Tony Wagner, the Human Rights Campaign’s western regional field director, said the group had initially targeted contacts at national companies that are members of the Roundtable. Five national companies — including Starwood, Time Warner and Marriott — publicly broke with the Roundtable last Thursday.

"Once the snowball starting rolling, then we started hearing from a number of other companies that were represented on (the Roundtable)," Wagner said.

Equality Hawaii wrote a letter to Roundtable members June 16 describing the veto request by the executive committee as "disturbing" and arguing that it left the impression that all members opposed equal protection for gays and lesbians.

Equality Hawaii asked company executives whether they were aware of the veto request, whether they support a veto and, if not, would they contact Lingle.

"We were very upset about this," Spector said. "We told them that if they didn’t support the veto request to please make their opinion known."

Correction: The Hawaii Business Roundtable has clarified that it has not taken a position on civil unions. The Roundtable has urged Gov. Linda Lingle to veto the civil unions bill because of administrative concerns about implementation. An earlier verison of this story posted on Thursday described the group’s position incorrectly.

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