Calling civil unions “essentially marriage by another name,” Hawaii Governor Lisa Lingle (R) announced that she is vetoing legislation extending civil unions to same sex and opposite sex couples. The law passed the Hawaii House rather unexpectedly back in April and LGBT advocates had spent the last several months lobbying the governor for her support. In a press conference yesterday, Lingle stressed that she was not qualified to make the decision and said that the rights of gay people should be put to a vote by the majority:
LINGLE: I am vetoing this bill because I have become convinced that this issue is of such significant societal importance that it deserves to be decided directly by all the people of Hawaii. The subject of this legislation has touched the hearts and minds of our citizens as no other social issue of our day. It would be a mistake to allow a decision of this magnitude to be made by one individual or a small group of elected officials. And while ours is a system of representative government it also is one that recognizes that, from time to time, there are issues that require the reflection, collective wisdom and consent of the people and reserves to them the right to directly decide those matters. This is one such issue.
Lingle’s statements are somewhat confounding, however, since the civil union legislation is not the same as marriage nor does it actually re-define marriage. Unlike marriage, civil unions are only recognized in the state in which they are performed and couples do not carry the benefits of civil unions across state lines. Couples united in a civil union have no access to the more than 1,000 federal rights, which, incidentally are still denied to same-sex married couples under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Currently, five states have civil union laws and five, plus DC recognize same-sex marriages.
Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii have released a joint statement saying they plan to sue the state. “This was a sad surrender to political expediency that does not support business or family interests, but damages them,” said Jennifer Pizer, National Marriage Project Director for Lambda Legal. “We would have preferred to see couples win fair treatment through the political branch rather than having to pursue legal action. However, we’re still ready to do what’s necessary so our clients can protect their loved ones.”
Hawaii has been a battleground for gay rights since the 1990s, when the Hawaii Supreme Court declared that the state “could not bar same-sex couples from marrying without violating its own equal protection statutes.” The decision, the first of its kind, led to a national backlash against gay equality and led President Clinton to sign DOMA. By 1998, Hawaii voters approved the nation’s first ‘defense of marriage’ constitutional amendment with 78% of the vote. It wasn’t until 2001 that the first civil union bill was introduced in the Hawaii legislature.
The Senate passed the bill last January by a veto-proof majority of 18-7. The House passed the bill in April by a 31-20 vote, which was just three votes short of the two-thirds that would be needed for an override.