While New York plans to begin offering same-sex marriage within weeks of passing a law, Hawaii is taking 10 months to prepare for the start of civil unions in this state.
Civil unions in Hawaii begin Jan. 1, but in the meantime the state is creating an Internet-based system that will get those certificates to couples more quickly.
The new online application process will cut down on the six- to eight-week wait that newlywed couples currently endure before receiving marriage certificates, Janice Okubo, spokeswoman for the Department of Health, said Monday. Eventually, the department plans to use the electronic system for marriages as well as civil unions.
"We don’t want to overpromise at this point, but we certainly want it to be shorter," Okubo said. "With an electronic process, we’re hoping that will be a faster turnaround."
Lawmakers gave the government time before starting civil unions rather than fight over when they should begin, an argument that had the potential to stall approval of the legislation. Passing the bill in February while leaving the Jan. 1, 2012, start date in place ensured it would become the first law Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed since last year’s election.
When New York approved same-sex marriages on June 24, the state was able to set a July 24 start date because it could use the same paperwork and procedures as it does for opposite-sex marriages, said Alan Spector, co-chair for advocacy group Equality Hawaii.
But Hawaii needed time to create the online application system, prepare civil union forms and train authorized agents to verify couples’ information, Okubo said.
"With civil unions, you’re creating an entire new institution. There are many more administrative hurdles," Spector said.
Hawaii lawmakers budgeted more than $300,000 during the next two years to fund three temporary positions to help ease the added work for the short-staffed Department of Health, said House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro.
The new hires will answer questions, make corrections and provide copies of records for both marriages and civil unions after they start work in January, Okubo said.
Despite the time lag before launching civil unions, couples will still travel to Hawaii instead of New York to solemnize their partnerships, Oshiro said.
"If people wanted to avail themselves of a ceremony, they already had the option of going to … states on the East Coast. Hawaii, being a visitor destination, is just a bit different," said Oshiro, D-Aiea-Halawa, who pushed for the legislation.
It’s unclear how many couples will seek civil unions in Hawaii, but the state wants to be prepared, Okubo said.
The number of couples seeking civil unions may be somewhat modest, according to a study last year by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA. Between 569 and 1,285 same-sex couples will enter civil unions in the first four years that registration is available, the study said.
Waiting for civil unions to start was a small price to pay in exchange for ensuring the legislation’s passage, said Tony Wagner, Western Regional Field Director for the Human Rights Campaign.
"While we would’ve liked to have seen it happen much sooner, we respect the fact that they thought they were going to need that much time," Wagner said. "We look forward to Jan. 1, 2012, and being able to finally provide those rights and responsibilities to same-sex couples in the state."
The online civil union system will enable couples, officiants and agents to enter their information into a form on a computer, which will decrease the time it takes before civil union certificates can be issued, Okubo said.
The department doesn’t yet know how quickly certificates can be produced under the new system, she said.