by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
In a surprise vote on the last day of its legislative session, the Hawaii House of Representatives legalized civil unions for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples.
The April 30 vote on HB 444 was 31-20.
Hawaii's Senate passed the legislation January 22, by a margin of 18-7.
The bill provides that partners in a civil union "have all the same rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities under law, whether derived from statutes, administrative rules, court decisions, the common law, or any other source of civil law" as do married spouses.
The measure also provides recognition of civil unions and same-sex marriages contracted in other jurisdictions where they are legal.
"All unions between two individuals not recognized [as marriages] under section 572-3 shall be recognized as civil unions provided that the relationship meets the eligibility requirements of this chapter," the bill says.
According to Lambda Legal, Hawaii's civil unions will offer couples "the same legal mechanisms as spouses for securing parent-child relationships, access to family court, and clear duties to pay child support and alimony as spouses must, and other vital protections."
The measure now goes to Hawaii's Republican Governor Linda Lingle for her signature. She has not said if she will sign or veto the measure.
She must decide by July 6. If she does not take action, the bill will become law without her signature and will take effect immediately.
The bill's majority in the Senate is more than two-thirds and therefore veto-proof, but supporters in the House could not override a Lingle veto unless they were able to persuade some representatives to switch sides.
If Lingle signs the bill, Hawaii will be one of six states that allow civil unions, including marriage benefits without marriage equality.
Five states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages.
April 30, the day after HB 444 passed the Hawaii House, the governor's office was swamped with phone calls and e-mails from both supporters and opponents of same-sex relationships.
Equality Hawaii, the statewide LGBT rights organization, called on supporters to send thank-you notes to legislators who supported HB 444, and to urge the governor to sign it.
Opponents from religious groups also called for a phone-in campaign rather than large-scale demonstrations against the bill.
HB 444 was generally assumed to be dead for this year, until the House Majority Leader, who is Gay, revived it.
A version of the measure providing only for same-sex civil unions originally passed the Hawaii House in February of last year. A Senate version, amended to include opposite-sex couples, passed in May 2009.
The bill was carried over into the 2010 legislative session, and passed the Senate again in January.
It then went back to the House for final approval, but House Speaker Calvin Say moved to postpone action indefinitely. He was reportedly reluctant to take up controversial legislation in an election year.
Say's motion was carried by voice vote and the measure was considered dead.
It was revived on a motion by House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro and proceeded to a vote with only hours left in the 2010 legislative session.
As Oshiro moved to bring the measure up for a vote, he also came out to his House colleagues. He later told reporters he does not usually discuss his sexual orientation, but felt it was important in light of the vote.
"It was really heartwarming to me, to know that at the end of the day people are willing to do what they need to do, do what they came here to do, and not just worry about keeping their jobs," Oshiro told KITV News.
Oshiro will face Gary Okino, a conservative Honolulu city council member and civil unions opponent, when he runs for reelection this fall.
A 1993 decision by the Hawaii Supreme Court held that the state's refusal to grant same-sex couples marriage licenses was discriminatory.
In 1998, however, voters approved the so-called "defense of marriage" constitutional amendment which gave the State Legislature power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples.
The legislature subsequently passed a law prohibiting same-sex marriage. That law remains unchanged by HB 444.
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