Tuesday, February 24, 2009

An uncivil discourse on civil unions

HONOLULU -- Supporters and opponents of civil unions were being subjected to cutting questions during a packed Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this morning.

The Senate took up HB 444, after the House passed it Feb. 12 by a 33-17 vote. It looked like the overwhelming amount of testimony was going to keep the hearing going for hours. The committee broke for session and was expected back at 1:30 p.m.

Proponents such as Alan Spector, of the Family Equality Coalition, say it’s difficult being called diseased and a threat to the state and compared to molesters and rapists just because they’re gay.

Many of the opponents, such as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu, said they do indeed believe homosexuality is wrong or against God’s wishes, and the state shouldn’t condone it.

Almost 70 percent of Hawaii voters in 1998 passed a constitutional amendment allowing the state Legislature to define marriage as between a man and a woman. A 1997 law allowed same-sex couples to register as “reciprocal beneficiaries,” including hospital visitation rights, authority to sue in wrongful death cases and inheritance and property rights.

Kathleen Sands, an American Studies professor at the University of Hawaii, said the framers of the U.S. Constitution contemplated a “live and let live” philosophy that Hawaii lawmakers should follow.

“This in no way requires that opponents ‘condone’ or ‘celebrate’ my relationship. In the United States, we don't expect Mormons to ‘condone’ Scientologists, or evangelical Christians to ‘celebrate’ Islam. But neither are these groups allowed to deny each other health care, parental rights, bereavement leave or life insurance,” Sands said.

“Marriage equality requires no more than does equity among the many religious groups that already co-exist in our state. And it deserves no less.”

The bill would allow same-sex couples to have all the benefits, protections and responsibilities of marriage after having their civil union performed by a judge or member of the clergy. The state would also recognize such unions performed in other states. The committee made it clear that it is not redefining marriage, but merely allowing civil unions.

But Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona doesn’t see it that way. He points to overwhelming public opposition to same-sex marriage that culminated with the 1998 referendum.

“(The bill) now attempts to circumvent the will of the people by authorizing the equivalent to same sex marriage, albeit under a different name,” Aiona said in written testimony.

“That is, despite not referring to a civil union as ‘marriage,’ this bill would confer all of the rights, duties, and obligations of marriage to participants in a civil union In view of the above, this bill clearly seeks to modify all Hawai'i law so that the terms "marriage" and "civil union" are synonymous.”

“If the public is on record as being overwhelmingly opposed to the concept of same sex marriage, how could one conclude that they would support its 'identical twin' just because it goes by a different name?”

Currently, only Massachusetts and Connecticut allow gay marriages, and Vermont, New Jersey and New Hampshire provide some, but not all, of the benefits of marriage by recognizing civil unions.