Hawai'i Legislators Kill Civil Unions Bill

(Honolulu, February 1, 2010) —

The Hawai'i Legislature has failed to enact a law providing broad legal rights and duties to the state's lesbian and gay couples, tabling a Bill through an anonymous voice vote that had previously been approved by both houses of the Legislature.

The Hawai'i Senate had approved H.B. 444 — a bill to create "civil unions"— by a veto-proof 18 to 7 majority the week before, sending the bill back to the House for a conforming vote. Although the House had passed H.B. 444 by an emphatic 33 to 17 margin last year, House members used an anonymous voice vote to kill the bill on Friday, January, 29, a tactic that elicited calls of “cowards” from backers of the bill.

Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai'i Foundation (ACLU) have announced they are planning legal action against the state of Hawai'i following the vote.

"Enough is enough. Infinite patience in the face of discrimination is irresponsible," said Jennifer C. Pizer, Marriage Project Director for Lambda Legal. "Our clients suffer every day from unfair taxes and denial of basic legal protections that every family in Hawai'i' needs. Although same-sex couples can't hope today for the full equality of marriage, Hawai'i's constitution still guarantees equal rights and responsibilities to everyone, gay and heterosexual alike. Because the Legislature has ducked its responsibility multiple sessions in a row, we have no choice now but to bring our clients' legal claims to court."

Hawai'i's constitution was amended in 1998 to allow the Legislature to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples, which it has done. This means same-sex couples cannot sue for full equality through marriage.

Although civil unions are a lesser status, they would provide a full range of state law protections and duties to gay and lesbian couples, such as relief from unfair state taxation of job-provided health insurance for family members, clear duties to pay child support and alimony as spouses must, protection of the family home against nursing home costs as spouses receive, and other vital protections.

The current "reciprocal beneficiaries" system not only fails to provide many basic rights but also sends a harmful message that the state views same-sex couples as less worthy of rights and protections.

"Civil unions offer essential protections but they are old news these days," said Lois Perrin, Legal Director of the ACLU of Hawaii. "It's shameful that Hawaii again validates discrimination — another blot on our history of diversity and fair treatment of all people. Once again, lawmakers' continued failure to support what's fair and right will leave many constituent families vulnerable under the current reciprocal beneficiary laws.”

Lambda Legal will be lead counsel in the case. The ACLU of Hawai'i will be co-counsel and the law firm of Alston, Hunt, Floyd & Ing will serve as cooperating attorneys.

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