Hawaii Civil Union Bill: a niche the tourism industry can fulfill


A bill allowing same-sex civil unions that prompted some of Hawaii’s biggest protests is headed to the governor after the state House of Representatives gave it final legislative approval Thursday.

The House voted 31-20 in favor of the measure, which had been stalled but was unexpectedly revived on the last day of this year’s legislative session. The Senate passed it in January.

Republican Gov. Linda Lingle hasn’t said whether she’ll reject it or sign it into law, but her office said later that she will carefully review the bill.

In this recession, businesses like Pet’s Central are just trying to weather the storm.

But they do see a silver lining in those dark clouds, civil unions one step away from becoming law.

“We have a lot of gay families and gay couples that have nowhere to go because sometimes they’re mistreated; this is an opportunity for them to come to a place that accepts them for who they are,” Pet’s Central store manager Kehau Hiona said.

Pet’s Central, which has six stores across Oahu, admits that business is usually slow during this time of year, but it’s been especially hard because more and more people are cutting back on things they want, such as pets.

The civil unions bill may give them that needed relief.

“I think in general for all businesses regardless if its retail or anything to do with tourism, I think it’s perfect, I think its helpful because it’s a niche the tourism industry can fulfill,” Hiona said.

The measure would grant gay and lesbian couples the same rights and benefits that the state provides to married couples. If approved, Hawaii will become one of six states – along with California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington – to grant essentially all the rights of marriage to same-sex couples without authorizing marriage itself.

Five other states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage: Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

The issue has proved divisive in Hawaii with religious groups arguing that civil unions are a step toward legalizing same-sex marriage. During one of the biggest-ever state rallies, several thousand people protesting the measure rode buses to the Hawaii Capitol last year following Sunday church services.

The gay and lesbian community urged lawmakers to act on their principles rather than back down in the face of public pressure from opponents threatening to vote them out of office.

Civil-union supporters wearing rainbow-colored leis, or flower necklaces, jumped and screamed for joy outside the House chamber following the vote.

“Hawaii is the Aloha State, and this vote shows that the greater community has love and acceptance for everyone,” said supporter Van Law.

Disappointed civil union opponents wearing red “iVote” buttons as a threat to legislators this election season quickly departed the Hawaii Capitol, with only a few lagging behind.

“Civil unions are a step down the very slippery slope toward legalizing same-sex marriage,” said Rachel Nakasaki, a Christian who believes traditional marriage between a man and a woman should be preserved.

The Aloha State has been a battleground in the gay rights movement since the early 1990s.

A 1993 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling nearly made Hawaii the first state to legalize same-sex marriage before voters in the state overwhelmingly approved the nation’s first “defense of marriage” constitutional amendment in 1998.

The measure gave the Legislature the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples. It resulted in a law banning gay marriage in Hawaii but left the door open for civil unions.

Hawaii’s civil union legislation appeared to be dead in January, when the House didn’t take a vote on the measure and postponed it indefinitely out of fears that Lingle would veto.

The issue was revived Thursday after every other bill introduced this year had been acted on. Democratic House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro made the motion to reconsider the bill, although the House fell three votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the governor.

“We’ll have to wait and see what she is going to do,” Oshiro said. “I would strongly encourage her to take a serious look at the issue. … It’s not about marriage, it’s just about equality.”

The bill was written so that civil unions would be available to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples to avoid claims of discrimination.

“Equality feels really good,” said Suzanne King, who said Hawaii would recognize her Massachusetts marriage to her partner as a civil union if the bill becomes law. “It allows us to strengthen our family.”

If Lingle vetoes the bill, it’s unlikely lawmakers would try to override her. They lack enough votes, and it’s an election year where legislators are hesitant to take stands on contentious social issues unless they’re forced to, as they were during Thursday’s roll-call vote.

“I’m looking forward to not coming back,” said Democratic Speaker of the House Calvin Say.