HAWAII STATE CAPITOL (KHNL) - The debate over same-sex relationships heats up once again. Thursday evening, the House Judiciary Committee passed a civil union bill (HB 444) that could give gay couples the same rights as married couples. The entire House of Representatives will vote on it early next week.
This debate echoes the divisive discussion of a decade ago, when Hawaii voters decided to define "marriage" as between a man and a woman.
One side says marriage should be protected as a sacred institution and this civil union bill threatens that. The other side says everyone should have the same benefits as marriage. The only thing certain about this is, it's a polarizing issue.
How legitimate are gay relationships? That's the question facing lawmakers this session. A civil union bill looks to give gay couples the same benefits as married couples.
Everyone from elected officials to union leaders are sounding off, and religious people have strong opinions, and they don't always agree.
"They're looking at language in the civil union proposal that's being coming forth is exactly marriage," said Walter Yoshimitsu, a spokesperson with the Hawaii Catholic Conference. "And what's going to happen is they're going to go against probably what the people already said. We don't want same sex marriage."
"Human beings have dignity and rights and this is a moral issue and that people deserve to have their rights," said Nancy S. Young, a spokesperson for the First Unitarian Church.
Currently only six states -- Vermont, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Oregon -- and the District of Columbia offer civil unions or domestic partnerships that offer the same rights as marriage.
And two states -- Massachusetts and Connecticut -- offer same-sex marriage. So the majority of states don't recognize same-sex relationships.
But House Judiciary Committee Chair Jon Riki Karamatsu, D-Waipahu, Waikele, Village Park, says there's growing support for Hawaii's civil union bill.
"Times have changed and the momentum has changed a lot," he said. "I think people are more aware and educated."
But those who want to protect marriage say the civil union bill is unnecessary because rights for gay couples already exist.
"So if the objection is that they're not being treated equally, let's fix reciprocal beneficiary to give them the benefits that they might seek," said Yoshimitsu.
Karamatsu says the civil union bill does not threaten marriage in any way.
"We don't want to change the definition of who can enter a marriage," he said. "That is a totally separate issue."
"So the marriage law remains?" asked KHNL.
"The marriage law remains intact so we're not changing the marriage law at all," Karamatsu said.
The on-going debate over legal definitions of relationships.
Karamatsu's office has received testimony in favor of civil unions by a four to one margin. People gave testimonies until Thursday evening.
The House Judiciary Committee passed an amended version of the civil union bill (HB 444) at about 6:15 pm Thursday. Twelve representatives voted yes, four were excused, and none voted no.