Gov. Linda Lingle’s veto of the civil union bill has prompted gay and lesbian couples to challenge the adequacy of existing state laws affording them certain rights. At best, this unprecedented lawsuit should clarify certain gay benefits and protections and prompt legislators to address the broader issue again in next year’s session.
Lambda Legal Defense and the ACLU of Hawaii filed the suit this week on behalf of six same-sex couples, three of whom were married in California or Massachusetts but now live in Hawaii. Lambda attorney Jennifer C. Pizer said Hawaii laws granting benefits to gay partners are "arcane," "confusing," "very complicated" and "very unfair."
The lawsuit seems like a long shot. In documenting experiences of the six plaintiff couples, it cites no instance of a same-sex pairing being denied legal reciprocal benefits. Nonetheless, if the lawsuit can pressure the state to streamline and expand the benefits, that would be a welcome outcome for equal protection under the law.
After Hawaii voters in 1998 gave the Legislature authority to restrict marriages to those between a man and a woman, legislators enacted a law recognizing "reciprocal beneficiaries." It has assured gay partners rights such as family and bereavement leaves, probate rights and hospital visitation, but the lawsuit says implementation of those laws has been unreasonably difficult.
The suit says a lesbian couple named as plaintiffs had to hire an attorney in order to "navigate a stressful, confusing and uncertain legal process" for one of them to obtain adoption of a child parented by the other. When one of them decided to change her last name to that of her partner, she had to "complete burdensome paperwork, pay additional fees and obtain approval" by Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, who had testified against civil unions for same-sex couples, it says.
Another couple had to complete "burdensome paperwork" to enroll for employer-based health insurance "while married spouses are offered a streamlined enrollment process," it says. Two of the same-sex couples cited problems in how state laws deal with property deeds and liens.
A lesbian partner "was shocked and felt deeply humiliated" by sneers of a guard at the state Department of Health and "felt painfully demeaned" by department employees when she requested expedited registrations as reciprocal beneficiaries, according to the suit.
The lawsuit asks that the court correct the problem by giving same-sex couples "the same protections, rights, benefits, duties, responsibilities and obligations … that the state affords different-sex couples through marriage." Essentially, that would amount to putting into effect the civil unions bill, giving same-sex couples the same rights and protections as married couples.
The governor was wrong in saying this minority-rights issue be put to voters. And should the lawsuit fail, the Legislature should make it a priority next year to ensure that the rights promised under our laws are equally accessible to all citizens.