The state House Judiciary Committee voted last night to approve a civil-unions bill with amendments to ensure that the relationships are recognized in the tax code and are under the jurisdiction of family court.
The bill would allow same-sex and heterosexual couples to enter into civil unions and receive the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as marriage under state law. The changes — recommended by the state Attorney General’s Office — mean that if approved by the House, the bill must go back before the state Senate, which passed the bill last month, before going to Gov. Neil Abercrombie for his signature.
"It’s still fast-tracked. I think the Senate now has the opportunity just to agree to these amendments that probably should have been considered when it was first passed," Rep. Gil Keith-Agaran (D, Kahului-Paia), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said after the 11-2 vote.
"I think they are reasonable amendments. I think the bill itself was legally sufficient, as the Attorney General said, but I think these clarifying amendments will be helpful," Keith-Agaran said.
The House could vote on the bill this week or early next week. Both the House and Senate must agree on the final language of the bill before it can go to Abercrombie.
Senate Bill 232 substantively mirrors the much-debated House Bill 444 from last year that was passed by the Legislature but vetoed by then-Gov. Linda Lingle. The changes approved last night clarify that since civil unions will not be recognized under federal law, certain provisions of the Internal Revenue Code that apply to husbands and wives in Hawaii apply with the same force and effect to partners in civil unions. Family Court will also have jurisdiction in matters of annulment, divorce and separation in civil unions, like the court does over marriages.
With the necessary votes in both chambers and a new Democratic governor who has voiced support for civil unions, lawmakers have moved swiftly to take advantage of the consensus so they can move on to other, less polarizing matters this session.
Lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee heard nearly five hours of testimony in the state Capitol auditorium yesterday as supporters and opponents raised familiar arguments for and against the measure.
Opponents argued civil unions would lead to same-sex marriage in Hawaii, going against the 1998 constitutional amendment approved by voters that gave the Legislature the power to define marriage as being between one man and one woman.
"Civil unions are a desperate and dishonest attempt to force same-sex marriage in Hawaii," said Allen Cardines Jr., executive director of the Hawaii Family Forum.
Others argued against the bill on moral grounds, saying they were fearful of children in public schools being forced to learn about same-sex lifestyles with no ability for parents to opt them out.
But state Board of Education member Kim Coco Iwamoto urged lawmakers to pass civil unions, arguing that granting equal rights would help ease discrimination and harassment of gay, lesbian and bisexual students.
"Rampant anti-gay rhetoric emanating from this debate is subjecting students to a heightened level of harassment," she said.
Supporters urged lawmakers to recognize equal rights for all of Hawaii’s citizens.
"This bill is about economic justice and the right of each of us to expect and receive fair treatment from our government," said Cade Watanabe, a spokesman for Unite Here! Local 5, the hospitality workers union.
Tambry Young, an advocate for Citizens for Equal Rights, told lawmakers of her pending 30th anniversary with her partner and urged passage of a bill she said would "allow our family to be treated with dignity and fairness that all families are entitled to and that most families have taken for granted."
Mitch Kahle, a longtime advocate for the separation of church and state, said he opposed civil unions because they did not go far enough to bring about equality.
"Separate but equal is wrong. This is just a half-measure," he said. "I can’t support civil unions. What I support is equal rights for all citizens.
"Let’s move on. Marriage equality for all."