Hawaii civil union bill takes a step in right direction

Aside from Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14) and National Freedom to Marry Day (Feb. 12), the issue of love appeared in the news a third time last week, as both chambers of the Hawaii state legislature passed versions of a bill that would allow same-sex couples in the state to enter into civil unions. Hawaii Senate Bill 232 was passed by large margins in both the state House and Senate, and it also has the support of the state’s governor and attorney general.

In the ongoing debate over the legal nature of same-sex versus opposite-sex partnerships, the bill further expands and redefines civil unions. Hawaii Senate Bill 232 attempts to bridge gaps between the definition of a civil union and a marriage for the benefit of both homosexual and heterosexual couples. Indeed, the bill opens the status of civil union — with all the legal rights, responsibilities, protections, and benefits of traditional marriage — to same-sex and opposite-sex couples alike. This is an important first step in what we see as the best long-term strategy: to get the word “marriage” out of our laws and provide a more neutral term that gives equal status to all couples regardless of sex.

Society has forced the word “marriage” to perform a confusing, two-faced dance between its definition in the law books and its role in our social lives. Pronouncement of a Christian union before God, a solemn Hindu saptapadi, or a sanctification via kiddushin under the Law of Moses means nothing to state law without a properly attested marriage license. Conversely, there is no portion of these religious rites set aside for the veneration of the state’s marriage certificate.

While Hawaii’s civil union bill would leave the term “marriage” on the books for heterosexual couples, its creation of an equivalent status for all couples is a smart move.

A national debate on couples’ rights that continually mixes 1,138 maritally-sensitive federal statutes with the teachings of independent religious authorities is no way to make calm, level-headed legal decisions.

We believe it would be wiser for the government to focus on defining one set of civil union rights and responsibilities for all couples, while leaving the different social interpretations and criteria for religious marriages up to other authorities.