By Mark Niesse Associated Press

House Judiciary Committee approves measure on unanimous vote; majority in House have voiced support

HONOLULU — Hawaii lawmakers took a step toward legalizing same-sex civil unions Thursday, Feb. 5 with a key vote at the state Capitol.

A packed room of people wearing gold stickers with the word "Equality" on them erupted in loud cheers and hugs as the House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the bill 12-0.

The measure now advances to a vote before the full House of Representatives this week, where a majority of representatives — 32 out of 51 — have already said they support the civil union measure. If it passes, the bill would then move on for consideration by the state Senate.

"Times have changed," said Jo-Ann Adams, who tearfully described how she fears being denied hospital visits to her partner of more than 14 years. "We must begin to tease apart religion from legal protections."

Opponents warned that civil unions would eventually lead to gay marriages and the destruction of the conventional family.

"There is no benefit to an unproductive relationship," said Virginia Domligan, a pastor at Prayer Center of the Pacific in Pearl City. "Full benefits are for traditional marriage between male and female."

The bill would allow same-sex partners who obtain a license to enter into a civil union, which affords the same rights, benefits and protections that state law provides to married couples.

Sixty-nine percent of Hawaii voters passed the nation’s first "defense of marriage" amendment in 1998, which granted state lawmakers the power to reserve marriage for opposite-sex couples.

But gay rights advocates believe the public’s fear of same-sex couples has waned over the last decade.

"This is not the controversial issue it was in the 1990s. There’s nothing controversial about the word ‘equality,’ " said Alan Specter, co-chair of the Family Equality Coalition who entered into a civil union with his partner in Vermont before moving to Hawaii. "We are not asking for special rights. We’re asking for equal rights."

Only Massachusetts and Connecticut allow gay marriage. California voters recently overturned a ruling allowing the practice there. Four states — Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey and New Hampshire — allow civil unions.

Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona urged legislators to respect the 1998 vote and reject civil unions. He suggested that lawmakers could put the question on the ballot again rather than pass a law without another vote of the people.

"This is nothing more than same-sex marriage under a different name," Aiona said. "You would be circumventing the will of the people."

Testimony in favor of civil unions far outnumbered opposition during the committee’s four-hour hearing. About 100 people packed the hearing room, and those who couldn’t fit inside spilled into the hallway to watch the proceedings on a TV.

The last time Hawaii considered civil unions was in 2007, when the House Judiciary Committee decided not to vote on the measure because it didn’t have enough support.

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