Civil Unions Heading for Guv’s Signature in Hawai'i

With the Hawaii State Senate’s 18-5 final passage of a civil union bill, the measure now heads for signature to Democratic Governor Neil Abercrombie, who won election last year on a platform advocating the new law.

The Senate’s action on February 16 followed the House’s 31-19 passage on February 11 of a slightly amended version of the civil union bill the Senate first approved in January.

The new law gives gay and lesbian couples in Hawaii all the state rights and benefits of marriage, but does not confer that word on their unions.

“We honor and thank the Legislature today for their commitment to equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community in Hawaii,” Alan Spector, co-chair of Equality Hawaii, said in a written statement. “When Governor Abercrombie signs it into law, it will send a strong message that the State of Hawaii values all its citizens.

“This is a great day for all Hawaii families,” said Jennifer C. Pizer, Lambda Legal’s national marriage project director. “We commend and thank Hawaii’s legislators for deciding it’s time for the state to take this important step.”

Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit last year when Republican Governor Linda Lingle vetoed a similar bill. Lambda said it is happy to end its suit given that the remedies they sought are contained in the new measure.

During the 1990s, a series of state court rulings suggested that Hawaii might become the first state to grant marriage equality to same-sex couples. Following a voter referendum, however, the state constitution was amended to bar court challenges contesting the denial of marriage rights.

“Finally, Hawaii families that are barred from being married will have the same rights and responsibilities under state law as their colleagues, friends, neighbors, and other family members,” Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a written statement.

Six other states — New Jersey, Illinois, California, Washington, Oregon, and Nevada — grant same-sex couples the right to enter into civil unions or equivalent domestic partnerships. Five states — Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Iowa — as well as the District of Columbia allow full marriage equality. According to Lambda, New York, Maryland, and New Mexico offer limited or full recognition to valid out-of-state marriages by same-sex couples.

A 2008 appellate-level state court ruling in New York established the precedent here for recognizing out-of-state marriages. However, New York State offers fewer rights to same-sex couples than four of the five bordering states — New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont — and both of the bordering Canadian provinces — Quebec and Ontario. Only Pennsylvania among New York’s neighbors is as inattentive to the rights of gay and lesbian couples.

A marriage equality bill, supported by the last three governors, including Democrat Andrew Cuomo, has been approved by the State Assembly three times since 2007, but failed by a 38-24 vote in the Senate in December 2009.