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Lingle decision on civil unions will split conflicting views

Chuck Spence fervently hopes Hawaii’s same-sex civil unions bill becomes law on Tuesday — and not just for philosophical reasons. The owner of the Maui Sunseeker, a 17-room, gay-oriented inn in Kihei, Spence expects bookings to markedly pick up if the contentious measure becomes law.

“Gay and lesbian clientele prefer to vacation in states that are sympathetic to their causes,” he said.

But Honolulu businessman Francis Oda, who heads the conservative Hawaii Family Forum, insists his concerns about civil unions center on morals and values, not a few more dollars in the till.

“The reason most people are either in favor or opposed to this (measure) really doesn’t have to do with helping tourism or hurting tourism. It has to do with certain fundamental things in our society,” said Oda.

The conflicting views are among the many facing Gov. Linda Lingle as she prepares to sign or veto the only pending civil unions proposal in the nation on Tuesday, or allow it to become law without her signature.

The bill would allow same- and opposite-gender couples to form unions with almost all the rights and responsibilities of marriage.

One of the most conflicted on the issue has been the Hawaii Business Roundtable, whose four dozen members are executives of leading companies. It initially called on Lingle to veto the bill, citing challenges in implementing it.

But the measure’s supporters began a letter-writing campaign to individual members, and two dozen firms have since issued statements taking mostly neutral stances on the legislation.

Four of those were among the largest players in Hawaii’s tourism industry — Hawaiian Airlines, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Marriott International Inc. and hotel owner Kyo-ya Co.

The Roundtable later wrote the governor to stress its neutrality on the civil unions issue.

Smaller, gay-friendly business owners contend civil unions will improve the state’s No. 1 industry — tourism — and help the economy.

“It’ll generate more inbound business for us if it does become law,” said John DeFreitas, of Panda Travel, a Hawaii agency that maintains a Web site aimed at gays planning trips to the state.

Massachusetts, California and other states that permit civil unions or gay marriage already have seen upticks in tourism business, said Elizabeth Churchill of Honolulu-based Aqua Hotels and Resorts, which operates 16 boutique hotels in the state and aims its marketing strategy in part at gay travelers.

“We think that it would be a real positive for (the gay) market and tourism overall,” she said.

Hawaii has had a mediocre reputation among gay and lesbian travelers since the mid-1990s because it hasn’t targeted marketing resources at them, said David Paisley at Community Marketing Inc., a gay marketing research firm in San Francisco.

“If you’re not active, and so many other destinations are active, you’re going to start slipping,” Paisley said.

Tourism officials declined to comment about the bill.

Few if any individual companies are publicly opposing the measure.

“I see a lot of these businesses now running for cover and/or hanging out the rainbow flag just as they’ve hung out the green flag,” said GOP state Sen. Sam Slom, referring to pennants symbolizing the gay rights and environmental movements. “It’s more a PR and marketing stance than it is maybe a deep-held belief.”

But Slom said most businesses of any size avoid getting involved in emotion-ridden social issues. Even the small business-oriented group he heads, Smart Business Hawaii, has taken no stand on the legislation, he said.

Lingle has avoided tipping her hand since the bill hit her desk on May 3, but has herself seemed conflicted. In May, she said the measure essentially allowed gay marriage, which she opposes. Two weeks ago, she said she’s “gone back and forth” on what to do.

The vast majority of e-mails, letters and telephone calls that have flooded the Republican governor’s office have opposed the bill, a Lingle spokesman said.

Lingle’s decision will be the last word on the issue for this year. Leaders of the Hawaii House of Representatives on Friday said they will not hold a special legislative session to override any of the measures that Lingle vetoed in the last two months or may veto by Tuesday.

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