By Mark Niesse Associated Press

Bill passes the House, but faces a tougher road in the Senate

HONOLULU — As gay activists across the country protested laws denying them the right to marry, Hawaii’s House of Representatives voted Thursday, Feb. 12 to allow same-sex civil unions.

The state House approved civil unions on a 33-17 vote, but the proposal faces a difficult fight in the state Senate, where opinions are more divided.

Some representatives compared the struggle for gay unions to efforts for racial equality and women’s rights.

"I see this as a continuation of getting rid of these awful, hurtful laws," said Rep. Joe Bertram, D-Makena-Kihei, who later told The Associated Press he would probably obtain a civil union with his partner of nearly 24 years if the measure passes. "Love really is not between a man and a woman. It’s between two human beings."

Both gay rights supporters and opponents loudly cheered and jeered lawmakers’ speeches from the gallery before they were twice asked to silence themselves by the speaker of the House.

"It’s major to get it through. We’re very happy. Many people do feel that times have changed," said Josephine Chang, a co-founder of Da Moms, a support group for parents of gay children. "We hope we have the same support and love and understanding from the Senate.

But others argued that civil unions are a way for representatives to bend the laws before eventually allowing full-blown gay marriage.

"If our children are raised to learn that same-sex marriage is correct, they’ll be confused about God’s order for marriage to be between a man and a woman," said Richard Knox Sr., senior pastor at Ohana Haven Ministries. "A small body of legislators is circumventing the people."

Across the nation, coordinated demonstrations were held Thursday as part of the 12th annual Freedom to Marry Week. Hundreds of same-sex couples seeking to wed were turned away from marriage license counters as part of the annual protest.

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

Hawaii voters passed the nation’s first "defense of marriage" constitutional amendment in 1998, which cleared the way for lawmakers to reserve marriage for opposite-sex couples.

However, it left the door open for civil unions.

"Oftentimes, the minority of the people get the short end of the stick," said Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu, D-Waipahu-Waikele, whose Judiciary Committee’s approval last week brought the issue to a vote by the full House. "We still have much work to do to create equality for all."

The bill advances to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the vote is split among six senators, with one undecided. A tie vote would kill the civil union measure for the year.

If the bill makes it out of committee, it would still need to pass a vote by the full state Senate and approval by Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, who wouldn’t comment on civil unions when asked last week.

Minority Leader Rep. Lynn Finnegan, R-Mapunapuna-Foster Village, said her late sister was gay, but she opposes the civil unions bill because society is built on marriage between a man and a woman.

"Our laws reflect the hierarchy of what is best for society for the generations of families to come," Finnegan said. "I can take this vote in good conscience because I know my sister would love me no matter what I vote."

Some voted against the civil union measure because they believe it’s a prelude for Hawaii to institute gay marriages in a few years. Gay rights groups have acknowledged that they will continue to seek gay marriages in Hawaii.

"Civil unions is really a Trojan horse for same sex marriage," said Rep. Gene Ward, R-Kalama Valley-Hawaii Kai. "This bill is not about equality. It is about an end-run for same sex marriages."

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