A majority in the state House has signed on to a bill that would legalize civil unions, giving the issue a genuine chance of advancing this session after years of stagnation. Same-sex couples who obtain a license could have their civil union performed by a judge, retired judge or member of the clergy. Partners who enter into civil unions would have the same rights, benefits and protections under state law as married couples. The state would also recognize civil unions, domestic partnerships or same-sex marriages validly performed in other states.
“I think it’s just time,” said state House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, D-33rd (‘Aiea, Halawa Valley, ‘Aiea Heights), who sponsored the bill. Thirty-two lawmakers in the 51-member House have signed Oshiro’s civil-unions bill, including state House Speaker Calvin Say, D-20th (St. Louis Heights, Palolo Valley, Wilhelmina Rise), and state Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu, D-41st (Waipahu, Village Park, Waikele), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Karamatsu said he believes he will have the votes to move the bill out of his committee, where it has stalled in the past, most recently in 2007. He said part of the difference this session is that gay-rights activists have broadened their outreach to include organized labor, the interfaith community and social-service groups.
More than 15 years ago, Hawaii came close to becoming the first state to approve marriage equality.
In 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that, indeed, denial of same-sex marriage amounted to discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation. Unless the state could demonstrate to lower courts that it had a valid interest in denying gay marriages, continued discrimination would be unconstitutional. A state judge ruled in 1996 that the state had failed to meet this requirement, which seemed to pave the way for gay marriage. The state appealed, but before the case reached the Supreme Court again, Hawaii voters passed a constitutional amendment exempting marriage from the equal protection clause. Hawaii’s Supreme Court had no choice but to throw out the gay couples’ claims to marriage licenses.