The push to establish civil unions in Hawaii now moves to the state House after the Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure in a vote with little suspense about the outcome.
Lawmakers have said they plan to move quickly on the legislation and that both chambers have the majorities needed to pass a proposal.
At issue is the specific language of the legislation.
Senators voted 19-6 yesterday to approve Senate Bill 232, a proposal essentially the same as House Bill 444, Senate Draft 1, which passed both chambers last year before being vetoed by then-Gov. Linda Lingle.
The proposal would grant all couples of the same or opposite sex the ability to enter into a civil union with all the rights, privileges, protections and responsibilities of traditional marriage.
The House could either approve SB 232 and send it to the governor or pass its own version. Both bodies need to agree on the language before sending a final bill to Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who supports civil unions.
House Judiciary Chairman Gil Keith-Agaran, whose committee would vet any such legislation, said he still is studying the Senate measure as well as four to five other proposals covering additional rights for gay couples.
"I haven’t really made up my mind yet whether or not there are additional things that need to be in that bill," Keith-Agaran (D, Kahului-Paia) said of SB 232.
He said he did not expect to hold a hearing on any civil unions bills until the week of Feb. 7 at the earliest, and he might consider holding a joint hearing for all of the related bills.
House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, with 21 co-sponsors, has introduced a bill similar to a measure that was not heard in the Senate. The bill was crafted by select lawmakers, members of the governor’s policy team and civil unions advocates and addresses some concerns about implementation of a civil unions law.
The proposal spells out processes such as how the state Department of Health would oversee licensing of civil unions, and ensures that the rights extend to applicable health, insurance and tax codes.
Oshiro (D, Aiea-Halawa) said he would work to make sure colleagues did not get bogged down in debates about language or process and hold up the bill or preclude it from passing this year.
"I think sometimes form can take precedence over substance, so I’m trying to work to make sure people keep their eye on the ball and concentrate on the substance," he said.
The Senate moved quickly in approving its civil unions legislation that passed last year by an 18-7 vote in the Senate and a 31-20 margin in the House.
Judiciary Chairman Sen. Clayton Hee (D, Kahuku-Kaneohe) held the first public hearing on the bill Tuesday, winning final passage from Senate colleagues just three days later.
Yesterday’s vote drew a crowd the fraction of the size of previous debates. In the last two years, floor votes often drew boisterous crowds of opponents and supporters clad in matching T-shirts or rainbow lei that often spilled out of the chamber galleries into the Capitol courtyard.
The crowd filed out of the gallery quickly after the vote yesterday with little to no audible reaction.
Raising familiar arguments, supporters of SB 232 called it a matter of equality, noting that the bill was not an attempt to change the legal definition of marriage as between one man and one woman.
Opponents said the state should expect lawsuits if the proposal is passed, noting gay rights advocates in other states have fought for same-sex marriage once gay couples received partial rights under similar laws.
Hee raised the nomination of openly gay Judge Sabrina McKenna to the state Supreme Court as an example of how the Senate had the opportunity to strike a blow in favor of equality.
"But this is not about Judge McKenna," he said. "This is about us, who would seat a lesbian on the highest court and deny her the equal privileges of her colleagues who sit beside her.
"We should be proud that the privilege to stand in judgment of this woman belongs to us, and this step today is but the first step, not for Judge McKenna, but for us."
Sen. Sam Slom, the chamber’s lone Republican, called it "outrageous and inappropriate" for Hee to bring McKenna’s sexual orientation into the discussion.
"I respect her. I admire her. I intend to support her," said Slom (Diamond Head-Hawaii Kai). "It has nothing to do with her sexual background. … I think it’s a disservice to this Legislature, this Senate, to the community and to the nominee to bring these things up. She can stand on her own merits."
Hee said he spoke with McKenna, who approved when he asked whether he could use her as an example.
"This is about equality," he said in conclusion. "This is about justice. It’s really quite simple. It’s not magical. This is not rocket science."
HOW THEY VOTED
A look at how the state Senate voted on Senate Bill 232, a proposal to allow for civil unions.