After just 25 minutes of debate, the
Hawaii House approved legislation that would create civil unions for
gay and lesbian couples in the state, the Honolulu-based Fox
affiliate KHON is reporting.
House Bill 444 was approved by a vote
of 33-17. It would grant gay couples all the rights, benefits and
responsibilities of marriage, but call the commitment a civil union.
The bill would also recognize legal gay marriages and civil unions
performed elsewhere as civil unions.
The bill was introduced by Democratic
House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro. His chamber held a four-hour
committee hearing on the issue last week.
The Hawaii Supreme Court was the first
to rule laws limiting marriage to heterosexual unions were
unconstitutional in 1993, but the court issued a stay in the matter.
By 1998, voters had passed by a large majority (70%) a constitutional
amendment banning gay marriage. (The Hawaii ruling also prompted
passage of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.)
Gay activists had predicted smooth
sailing for the bill in the House, but remain fearful it might stall
in the Senate.
Judiciary Chairman Brian Taniguchi
(Democrat) has said his committee was prepared to hear the proposal
but was uncertain if it would survive to the Senate floor for a vote.
A large number of state legislatures
are mulling extending marriage or marriage-like unions to gay and
lesbian couples this legislative session, including New York, New
Jersey, Washington state, New Mexico, Maine, Rhode Island, New
Hampshire and Vermont. Supreme courts in two states – California
and Iowa – are expected to rule on gay marriage by midsummer.