Hawaii's highly charged issue of civil unions is about to try to clear its last hurdle as the governor ponders whether to veto a measure that would enable same-sex and heterosexual couples who are not married to receive the same protections as married couples under the law. On Monday, June 21, Hawaii Republican Governor Linda Lingle is expected to include the civil-unions bill on her list of bills she may veto. She has until July 6 to indicate her intentions. Otherwise, on that date, the measure will become law without her signature.
Since state lawmakers approved the civil-unions measure in April, the governor has met with local religious and business leaders, both proponents and opponents. She has said she is seriously considering all facets of the bill. No one knows for certain what the governor will do, but early last week, Lieut. Governor James "Duke" Aiona, who is running for governor in the upcoming November election (Lingle is limited to two terms), said the measure would definitely be on the list for veto consideration. Aiona had the authority to veto bills when Lingle was away on an official visit to China, but she had specifically set aside the civil-unions legislation, saying she would personally decide the matter.
Advocates on both sides of the issue have not let up their fight since the measure's dramatic passage. There are Facebook fan pages urging people to e-mail the governor in support of the bill. On the other side, telephone trees against the measure have been sponsored by the Hawaii Catholic Conference, a public-policy voice for the Catholic diocese.
If Lingle vetoes the bill, the state legislature may try to reconvene to vote to override her. But that may be difficult. Passing the legislation itself in April was fraught with difficulty; in fact, it was a surprise to most who had thought the measure was dead after the state senate had passed the bill back in January. But on the last day of the session, after long discussions in caucus meetings, the House leadership put the measure back on the table, where it passed 31-20.
Hawaii's business leaders are conflicted over the civil-unions measure. The Hawaii Business Roundtable, a public-policy organization composed of business executives who promote the overall economic vitality and social health of Hawaii, recently urged the governor to veto the measure. A week after issuing that statement, however, seven large businesses came out in support of the bill the latest being the state's largest health insurer, Hawaii Medical Service Association, which joined Time Warner Cable Inc., Marriott International Inc., Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., Marsh & McLennan Companies Inc. and Aon Corp.
According to a study by the University of California School of Law's Charles R. Williams Institute On Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, an estimated 272 same-sex couples in Hawaii would enter into a civil union within a year, out of an estimated 2,472 such couples in Hawaii. The study, conducted at the request of state representative Blake Oshiro, who led the support of the measure, and the ACLU, determined that civil unions would be a boon for Hawaii's economy.
The governor "has been tight-lipped about this and publicly saying she is talking to both sides," says Chuck Freedman, former communications director for the Hawaii Democratic Party. "My own feeling is, this is a basic civil-rights issue and not a Democratic or Republican issue. I hope her sense of civil rights will kick in and she will allow it into law." At the start of the legislative session in January, Lingle had indicated she wanted lawmakers to drop the issue because the state had more pressing problems to deal with.
Five U.S. states and the District of Columbia issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Hawaii would join New Jersey in allowing civil unions. Its measure would grant to partners in a civil union the same rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities as married spouses. All couples would be allowed to enter into a civil-union legal contract, provided they are 18 or older, not related and not already married.
"Hawaii's bill is unique in that it's open to same-sex and different-sex couples and may well be the wave of the future," says Jenny Pizer, a marriage-project director for Lambda Legal Western Regional office, a gay-and-lesbian group headquartered in Texas. "It's a nondiscriminatory approach, an approach that is different because it is open to everyone."
Dennis Arakaki, who heads the Hawaii Catholic Conference, says he hopes Lingle vetoes the bill because he wants the community to vote on the measure as a constitutional amendment. "This is the kind of bill that has the potential to change values in our society," Arakaki says. "Whenever you talk about changing societal values, it should be put before the people."
For people like Tambry Young, who has been with her partner for 29 years and has a 10-year-old child, the civil-union measure would give her and her spouse the protections and benefits of a married couple and would enable her to obtain medical records and visit her partner should she get sick. It would also enable Young to claim her partner's body at the Honolulu Medical Examiner's office if she passes away. "We really believe this is a civil-rights issue," says Young, who is a board member of Citizens for Equal Justice. "It's about societal justice and equality."