Usually not at a loss for words, Alan Spector needed a moment to compose himself before reacting to yesterday’s vote by the state House of Representatives to legalize civil unions in Hawaii.
Spector was among about two dozen supporters of the civil-unions bill who quietly celebrated in the Capitol courtyard following the House vote — an outcome that was as emotional as it was expected.
"This shows that persistence pays off," said Spector, co-chairman of Equality Hawaii. "This is a great day for Hawaii."
The House vote was seen as perhaps the final hurdle for the legislation, which has come to the forefront in the Legislature the past three years.
Two years ago a proposal failed in the waning days of the session, only to be revived and passed on the final day last year before being vetoed by then-Gov. Linda Lingle. The Republican governor called the measure same-sex marriage by another name, which she opposed.
The proposal now is on the fast track with a new executive, Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat who supports civil unions. Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz met with and congratulated the supporters after the vote but declined comment.
"This shows that persistence pays off. This is a great day for Hawaii."
Senate Bill 232 passed in the House by a 31-19 vote yesterday with one member absent. It now goes to the Senate. If it is technically sound with no major flaws, leaders say, they plan to pass it by the end of next week.
Senators passed their version of the bill last month by a vote of 19-6. Because the House made changes, it faces a final vote in the Senate before it can go to Abercrombie.
"If everything looks OK, we’ll probably just do our vote in the early part of the week," said Senate President Shan Tsutsui (D, Wailuku-Kahului).
"There is a commitment" to moving quickly, said Sen. Brickwood Galuteria (D, Downtown-Waikiki), Senate majority leader.
Opponents pledged to continue meeting with lawmakers to urge their defeat of the proposal.
"We keep hoping and working on our governor. We never give up hope," said Belinda Jacobs, 47, of Manoa, founder of Christian Counseling and Research Center of America, a conservative organization that publishes research on social issues.
The bill would allow all couples — same-sex or heterosexual — to enter into a civil union, a legal status with all the rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities of traditional marriage.
House members debated the measure for about 20 minutes, with both sides earning scattered applause.
"Whether you like it or not, the institution of marriage as we have known is being challenged, and it will never be the same after this."
Rep. Joe Souki
Rep. John Mizuno (D, Kalihi) wiped away tears as he explained that his no vote was not out of hatred or bigotry, but because of his commitment to God.
"We have no hate or disdain for our people — for the people of Hawaii," he said.
Other opponents argued that civil unions would simply be a gateway to same-sex marriage.
"Whether you like it or not, the institution of marriage as we have known is being challenged, and it will never be the same after this," said Rep. Joe Souki (D, Waihee-Wailuku). "We cannot pretend that it’s not marriage. It is."
Rep. Gil Keith-Agaran, House Judiciary chairman, noted the bill makes no changes to Hawaii’s marriage law, which resulted from a 1998 constitutional amendment approved by voters that gave the Legislature the power to define marriage as being between one man and one woman.
"What’s before us today is the extending of comparable dignity," said Keith-Agaran (D, Kahului-Paia).
Five states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont) allow same-sex marriage, while Hawaii is among a dozen states that provide some form of spousal benefits and protections to same-sex couples.
Spector of Equality Hawaii said same-sex marriage is the ultimate goal of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates, but called it "speculative" that the civil unions measure would end in that result.
"It’s no secret — of course our goal is full marriage, if we could achieve that, but that’s not something that’s politically possible right now in Hawaii, and that’s not something we’re pursuing," he said. "If a future generation should decide to change the laws and pass same-sex marriage, then that’s fine, but that’s not the discussion of 2011."
A look at how the House voted on the civil-unions proposal. Rep. Rida Cabanilla was absent for the vote.