Hawaii House Passes Civil Unions

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After only 25 minutes of debate, the Hawaii House approved legislation that would create civil unions for gay and lesbian couples in the state.

House Bill 444, which “extends the same rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities of spouses in a marriage to partners in a civil union,” was approved by a vote of 33-17. The bill would also recognize legal gay marriages and civil unions performed elsewhere as civil unions.

The bill was introduced by Democratic House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro. His chamber held a four-hour committee hearing on the issue last week.

The Hawaii Supreme Court was the first to rule laws limiting marriage to heterosexual unions were unconstitutional in 1993, but the court issued a stay in the matter. By 1998, voters had passed by a 70 percent majority a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

The Hawaii ruling also prompted passage of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Gay activists had predicted smooth sailing for the bill in the House, but remain fearful it might stall in the Senate.

Judiciary Chairman Brian Taniguchi (Democrat) has said his committee was prepared to hear the proposal but was uncertain if it would survive to the Senate floor for a vote.

A large number of state legislatures are mulling extending marriage or marriage-like unions to gay and lesbian couples this legislative session, including New York, New Jersey, Washington state, New Mexico, Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont. Supreme courts in two states – California and Iowa – are expected to rule on gay marriage by midsummer.

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