Civil Unions: Why we keep coming back to the M-word

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—Decades ago, fear of the M-word was code for someone afraid of a marital commitment. Now for some, it appears to mean fear that any two people might be able to get legally married. Although Section 1 of the Hawaii civil unions bill says “it is not the Legislature’s intent to revise the definition or eligibility requirements of marriage,” for those opposed to HB 444 SD1, defining and promoting traditional marriage are exactly the issues.

Gender qualifications and the sanctification of the union are the defining lines—not a deep abiding commitment between two unrelated people who want to legally solemnize their relationship. HB 444 SD1 would give same or opposite sex couples who enter into civil unions the same benefits, responsibilities, and legal protections as married couples. Opponents claim the bill is just a stepping stone to gay marriage.

Last session, hearings on the original bill were contentious—overrun with testimony on both sides and there were allegations of abusive behavior by the red shirt opposition. By the session’s end, champions of the measure were able to muster enough votes to pull it from committee to the full Senate, where it was amended last minute to its current version and passed its second reading and left for the 2010 session to complete the cycle.

While last week’s Senate 18-7 vote sent the amended bill striding back to the House where it will either be accepted in its current form or go to committee to be reconciled, the real story starts now. How the House will handle the bill and what kind of support we will see for both sides of the issue will tell what Hawaii really wants—and what kind of people we are.

The Governor has already weighed in saying the bill is a distraction to lawmakers from the business of the budget and there is no indication of what she will do should the bill reach her desk. Proponents counter that her comment shouldn’t be a distraction from civil rights. They also say that having a civil unions law in place would create a better financial future for Hawaii with additional state registration fees for civil unions adding to the state’s coffers with minimal cost to administrate them. Then there is the psychological aspect: with more families feeling like first class citizens there might be a change in community stakeholder mindset—one that would be good for business and the economy.

Former legislator Dennis Arakaki is the Executive Director of Hawaii Family Forum and spokesperson for Hawaii Catholic Conference. Arakaki joined last week’s Town Square discussion by phone and began by saying the debate over civil unions isn’t a religious argument.

“This should not be framed as Christians versus gays,” Arakaki said. “In a survey we did, 67 percent were still opposed to same sex marriage and this doesn’t reflect just Christians.”

But wait, we were discussing civil unions, weren’t we? There’s that M-word again.

Alan Spector, legislative committee co-chair for Equality Hawaii, says the focus on marriage is a diversion from the real issue. “The bill is about equal treatment under the law for all families in Hawaii nothing more, nothing less,” he said.

Spector points to a 2009 Hawaii poll, which asked whether “committed couples and their families, regardless of their sexual preference or orientation, should have the same rights.” 81 percent of those polled said they agreed.

Hawaii and three other states—Colorado, Maine, and Wisconsin—provide some spousal rights to same sex couples. But Spector says Hawaii’s reciprocal benefits law isn’t and won’t be enough, even if it is augmented as Rep. John Mizuno proposes. Mizuno has also said he’ll introduce a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

That’s a stalling tactic and redundant, Spector said. A 1998 amendment already gave the Legislature the power to reserve marriage to a man and a woman. The civil unions bill would address discrepancies of legal rights in Hawaii and the religious view of marriage shouldn’t have a part in the discussion.

“Our opponents would like to make it about marriage because that is how they scare people,” Spector said. “Mixing religion into this will go nowhere. We have a separation of church and state.”

While Arakaki has repeatedly stated that there needs to be an agreement on the definition of marriage before the bill on civil unions can proceed, Spector counters that the definition used by Arakaki and others is one based in a specific religious tradition and shouldn’t be the test of a relationship’s legitimacy: The religious convention of some shouldn’t trump civil liberties for all.

While Arakaki maintains that his group doesn’t want to seem as if they’re condemning the other side, he is clear that acceptance of diversity does not include the creation of alternate institutions to marriage—for either opposite or same sex partners.

“As Christians, we know only God can pass judgment,” Arakaki said. “We prefer to encourage love and acceptance of those who are part of our community.”

How this marriage-only point of view is evidenced this time around has already departed from the inclusiveness Arakaki promotes. At anti-civil unions rallies prior to the Senate vote, both Arakaki and Spector charge that each side experienced ugliness from their opposition. Arakaki alleges a gay man assaulted Sen. Mike Gabbard; Spector says there was a sign in the crowd proclaiming “Listen to Africa.” The sign, which Spector says Hawaii Family Forum had the power to remove, referred to a proposed law in Uganda calling for the death penalty for gays and lesbians.

Both Spector and Arakaki say neither they nor the groups they represent condone violence in speech or action. They are also quick to say that they cannot control the individual acts of others. In the absence of any real organizational control, we can expect zealots to unravel more quickly as the fervor over morality and Godliness meet a no less passionate demand for civil rights. Whatever happens now, as this debate continues in the House and in many homes and places of worship, will tell the tale of what stuff we’re really made of. Let’s not try to show that “M” also stands for malevolence.

BakTalk is a new regular column by Beth-Ann Kozlovich, host of Hawaii Public Radio’s Town Square.