Hawaii News Church exemption threatens bill By B.J. Reyes April 1, 2012 Mahalo for supporting Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Enjoy this free story! Read more Mahalo for reading the Honolulu Star-Advertiser! You're reading a premium story. Read the full story with our Print & Digital Subscription. Subscribe Now Read this story for free: Watch an ad or complete a survey Log In Already a subscriber? Log in now to continue reading this story. Activate Digital Account Print subscriber but without online access? Activate your Digital Account now. Efforts intended to clarify and fine-tune the state’s new civil unions law could unravel because of a proposal that would allow churches and religious organizations to bar such ceremonies from their properties. The so-called "religious exemption" has been passed by the House, but not the Senate, setting up a clash that could kill the proposals altogether if the two sides cannot reach a compromise. "I think one of the things we’re trying to do is lessen some of the conflict that is going on," said Rep. Gil Keith-Agaran, the House Judiciary chairman. "It seems that — especially some of the smaller churches — what they’re concerned about is that they do not want to have their sanctuaries used for (civil union) ceremonies." Act 1, adopted last year, allows couples regardless of gender to enter into civil unions, gaining a legal status with all the rights, benefits, privileges, protections and responsibilities of traditional marriage. A working group tasked with implementing the law discovered some procedural issues faced by prospective civil union couples. Those included addressing the so-called "gap period" faced by couples already in a reciprocal beneficiary relationship. Couples face a time period in which they are covered neither by a reciprocal beneficiary relationship nor a civil union, which could put benefits such as insurance coverage at risk. The "gap" would occur because reciprocal beneficiaries must dissolve that relationship before entering into a civil union. This requires sending a notarized letter to the Department of Health, which acknowledges receipt and sends notice to the applicant of the dissolution, a process that typically can take weeks. Legislative leaders and Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s office submitted housekeeping bills to fix the gap period and other technical issues. Those proposals were expected to easily gain approval until the religious exemption issue arose. Blake Oshiro, Abercrombie’s deputy chief of staff, who previously served in the Legislature and was the key figure behind the passage of the civil unions law, said the governor is watching the bills. "He is concerned about the broadness and scope of that exemption," Oshiro said Friday. "We think that through the legislative process they’ll come out with the right decision." Under language approved by the House, religious organizations, as well as associations, societies and nonprofit groups affiliated with such organizations, "would not be required to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges" related to the solemnization of a civil union. Facilities would be limited to properties "regularly used for worship or ministry activities in the religious work of the organization." "If a church, for example, ran a golf course clubhouse, I don’t think this conscience exemption should apply to them," said Keith-Agaran (D, Kahului-Paia). "I think the language that we’ve proposed is fairly narrow." The law already exempts church officials and ministers from liability if they object to performing a ceremony. Churches and religious groups favored the House language. "We will continue to raise our voices against any effort to keep people of faith, and church communities, from practicing according to their religious belief," Allen Cardines Jr., executive director of the Hawaii Family Forum, said in testimony to Senate lawmakers. The Senate did not include the language in its version of the housekeeping bill. At a hearing last month, Sen. Clayton Hee, judiciary chairman, said he was inclined to keep that position. Concerns arose over some churches profiting from large-scale wedding operations while maintaining a tax-exempt status. Steven Levinson, a retired state Supreme Court justice who supported the civil unions law, said the exemption sets a bad precedent. "In effect, what this religious exception would do would be to say that commercial enterprises that would otherwise be prohibited from discriminating on the basis of sex or sexual orientation will be permitted to do that if a church has anything to do with the commercial establishment," Levinson said. "It could set a precedent for the Legislature trying to exempt other kinds of entities from the public accommodations laws and I think that would be terrible." The bills are expected to come up again this week as the Legislature reaches its next internal deadline Friday to advance measures. The measure in the House still must be passed by the Finance Committee before going to the floor for a final vote. The Senate version has advanced out of committee and faces a final vote by the full chamber. If each side passes a different version of the bill, it would be up to a joint House-Senate conference committee to negotiate a final version of the bill. 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