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Governor-Elect Promises to Sign Same-Sex Civil Union Legislation in Hawaii

Hawaii’s governor-elect, Neil Abercrombie (D), who won the November 2 election with 58 percent of the vote, has said he will sign into law legislation granting same-sex civil unions if it is passed by the legislature in Hawaii. Earlier this year, Hawaii’s state house and senate passed House Bill 444, which would legalize civil unions in the state, but it was vetoed by the Republican former governor, Linda Lingle. Abercrombie has stated that if the now Democratic majority in the state house and senate were to pass a similar bill to the one previously vetoed by Lingle, he would make Hawaii the sixth state, among five others and the District of Columbia, to legalize same-sex civil unions.[1]
Abercrombie’s colleagues acknowledge the hard road ahead, even with a governor who has same-sex rights on his political agenda. “I’m hopeful, but I would never want to call any shots until the final vote is taken,” says Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, who is openly gay. “While I remain optimistic, there’s still a lot of work to be done.”[2]
Hawaii has had a long-standing history with the gay rights movement. In 1993, three same-sex couples challenged the state’s heterosexual-only marriage code and won. The Hawaii Supreme Court stated that “barring a compelling state interest, the State of Hawaii could not bar same-sex couples from marrying without violating its own equal protection status.”[3] However, the state legislature decided to amend the constitution after Hawaii voters passed Amendment 2 in 1998, which gave the legislature the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples, depriving same-sex couples of their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Hawaii Constitution.[4] This decision to overrule the Court’s original decision sparked a passionate debate about gay rights and marriage in Hawaii that has not yet ebbed.
James “Duke” Aiona, Abercrombie’s opponent in the gubernatorial race this year, had taken a very staunch position condemning same-sex civil unions and promised voters he would support an amendment banning gay marriage in the Hawaii Constitution. This measure would have essentially eliminated the option for recognition of all same-sex unions and more pointedly, civil-unions. This was made a possibility through Amendment 2 that granted lawmakers the “power to define marriage as a heterosexual union.”[5]
Abercrombie’s win over Aiona was a resounding message of hope to many who have been in support of same-sex civil unions. “In many ways, this election was a referendum on the bill,” said Alan Spector, co-chair for Equality Hawaii. “This election has shown that equality wins elections. There’s no reason for us to believe that we can’t pass the bill again.”[6]
The 2010 legislative session marks the third consecutive session in which civil unions have been made a prime issue, garnering a great deal of attention from both supporters and opponents. Supporters of same-sex civil unions are more hopeful after November’s elections, in which they gained one vote in the state senate, making the tally 30 votes for legalizing civil unions, according to advocates of the bill. Many conservative religious groups have and will continue to oppose the passing of the same-sex civil union bill. Evangelical Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons have been very adamant in their efforts to foil the success of the bill, writing to convince lawmakers through letters, e-mails, and demonstrations.[7] “In Hawaii, people still believe in traditional marriage and the sanctity of marriage,” Dennis Arakaki, Executive Director of the Hawaii Family Forum and Hawaii Catholic Conference publically stated. “There is no indication that values or perspectives have changed.”[8]
Even with firm opposition from these religious groups and others, it seems as if passing the bill is a genuine possibility—if everything goes according to plan. The bill will have to pass through committees that might veto the possibility of it even reaching the full house and senate, but many in the legislature seem confident that the bill will be voted through. Abercrombie is hopeful and excited to make this step for equality, and for Hawaii. “Protecting people’s civil rights cannot be compromised. I am committed to that most essential of constitutional imperatives” said Abercrombie. “Civil unions respect diversity, protect people’s privacy and reinforce our core values of equality and aloha.”[9]

[1] Mark Niesse, “Hawaii Positioned to Pass Same-Sex Civil Unions,” Associated Press, 6 November 2010, accessed 9 November 2010, <>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Tom Head, “The American Gay Rights Movement: A Short History,” Civil Liberties,2010, accessed 9 November 2010, <>.

[4] Phillip l. Bartlett II, “Recent Legislation: Same-Sex Marriage,” LexisNexis, Summer 1999, 36 Harv. J. on Legis. 581, accessed 15 November 2010, <>.

[5] Carlos Santoscoy, “With Neil Abercrombie Win, Gay Civil Unions Bill Poised for a Comeback,” On Top Magazine,7 November, 2010, accessed 10 November 2010, <>.

[6] Mark Niesse, “Hawaii Positioned to Pass Same-Sex Civil Unions.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mark Niesse, “Civil Unions: Hawaii Becomes Latest Battleground, Associated Press, 22 February 2009, accessed 15 November 2010, <>.

[9] Neil Abercombie, “Official Statement from Neil Abercrombie on Civil Unions Bill #HB444,” Team Abercrombie for Governor 2010,6 July 2010, accessed 10 November 2010, <>.