HONOLULU (BP)–A same-sex civil unions bill in Hawaii that appeared headed for passage just two weeks ago now is in limbo amidst a larger-than-expected outpouring of opposition from Christians.
The bill, H.B. 444, already has passed the House and has majority support in the Senate. The bill, however, failed to make it to the Senate floor when a committee deadlocked 3-3 in the early morning hours of Feb. 25, following hours of impassioned testimony by citizens. Democratic leaders who control the Senate said at the time the bill likely would be pulled from committee, but that has yet to happen. If passed and signed into law, the bill would give homosexual couples all the legal benefits of marriage, minus the name.
“They are feeling the pressure,” Rick Lazor, pastor of OlaNui Church and an opponent of the bill, told Baptist Press. “It’s really been a miracle.”
Senate leaders now are considering junking the civil unions bill altogether and simply adding more benefits to the state’s reciprocal benefits law, a local TV station in the state reported. Such a move would have far less opposition from conservatives, because the reciprocal benefits law is not based on sexual preference and simply grants some of the benefits of marriage to any two people who cannot marry — for instance, to two elderly sisters, two good friends or a same-sex couple.
If the civil unions bill does fail, opposition from Christian groups apparently will have made the difference. The Sunday before the committee vote, approximately 8,000 people — most of them wearing red — rallied at the state capitol urging senators to oppose the bill. Honolulu’s KHNL-TV described the gathering as a “sea of red.”
Two days later, approximately 1,400 people signed up during the committee hearing to speak against the bill, with hundreds of them lining the capitol building hallway because they were not able to fit in the auditorium. By some estimates, 90 percent of the crowd was in opposition. After more than 15 hours of hearing public testimony, the committee tied in a 3-3 vote just past 3 a.m., with three Democrats supporting it and one Democrat joining the two Republicans to oppose it. The deadlocked vote was expected.
A tie vote normally would kill a bill, but the Senate can pull a bill from committee if nine of the chamber’s 25 members choose to do so. Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, a Democrat, had indicated she might do that, but in the days following the committee’s vote it became apparent senators were having second thoughts. Some expressed concern about not expressing the will of the committee, while others pointed to the public opposition. A pro-civil unions rally March 7 at the capitol drew only about 200 people.
Even after the committee vote, opponents have continued contacting their senators.
“Christians finally woke up,” said Lazor, whose church is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention. “People said, ‘This isn’t right.’ … It’s been neat to see our pastors — especially some of the pastors of our larger churches — stand up and allow God to use their influence in a real positive way and speak to this issue. I think they’ve really made some rumblings.”
Lazor — who attended the committee hearing but had to leave after two hours to make a doctor’s appointment — said his senator told him the number of “yes” votes for the bill may have dropped from 18 to 13. That’s a bare majority in the 25-member chamber.
Hawaii passed a constitutional marriage amendment in 1998 by a 71-29 percent margin. The amendment gave the legislature the power to prohibit “gay marriage,” which lawmakers did. Lazor says that even if the bill passes, it won’t be the end of the story. Alan Spector, co-chairman of Family Equality Coalition Hawaii, which backs the bill, told the Star-Bulletin newspaper, “We are never going away.”
“The people here advocating for civil unions aren’t interested in civil unions,” Lazor said. “They’re interested in gay marriage. And they will say so if you push them. … If we did everything they are asking for, they would still be back next year. It’s never about this bill. It’s about pressuring society to accept their lifestyle as legitimate.”
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.