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Hawaii Approves Benefits Package for Gay Couples

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Hawaii Legislature on Tuesday passed the most sweeping package of rights and benefits ever given to nontraditional couples in the United States.

The measure, which takes effect July 1, falls short of allowing same-sex couples to marry, but gives those who register as “reciprocal beneficiaries” about 60 benefits, including medical insurance and survivorship rights.

The bill is part of a two-pronged effort by lawmakers to derail a case now on appeal to the Hawaii Supreme Court that is expected to legalize same-sex marriage. A companion bill, which also passed by a lopsided vote Tuesday, will put a constitutional amendment before Hawaii voters in November 1998 that would allow the Legislature “to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples.”

Like most compromises, the Hawaii legislation left both sides with mixed feelings.

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“I think it’s great that we’ll get something,” said Pat Lagon, who has sued the state for the right to marry his partner, Joseph Melillo. “It’s better than nothing, but still we’re not getting the whole package like everybody else. It’s second-class treatment.”

Although some municipalities do give some partnership rights to unmarried couples, this legislation is far more comprehensive and affects the entire state. In 1994, the California Legislature passed a narrow domestic partnership bill, but it was vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson. That bill would have required hospitals to grant visitation rights and changed state law relating to wills.

Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano, who supports domestic partnership rights, is expected to sign the benefits bill. The constitutional amendment, which does not require his signature, will automatically go to the voters. Supporters of traditional marriage have pushed for such an amendment for four legislative sessions.

“It’s definitely a victory for pro-family supporters all over the country,” said Mike Gabbard, the chairman of the Alliance for Traditional Marriage Hawaii. “If passed by voters, it basically protects the rest of the mainland from what everybody was anticipating--namely gays coming over here and getting married and then going back home.”

The reciprocal beneficiaries law will affect only Hawaii residents. It applies to any two people who cannot legally marry, including same-sex couples and other nontraditional partners, such as a widow and her son. It would not apply to anyone who is already married. Partners who register with the state--and pay an $8 fee--would be eligible for benefits, including:

* Survivorship rights, such as inheritance, workers’ compensation survivorship and state employee retirement benefits.

* Health benefits, such as hospital visitation, private and public employee prepaid medical insurance benefits, auto insurance coverage, mental health commitment approvals, family and funeral leave.

* Property rights, such as tenancy in the entirety.

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* Legal standing relating to wrongful death and victims’ rights.

“The bill by itself is a very progressive piece of legislation,” said Dan Foley, an attorney for the three same-sex couples who sued the state. “Our problem is with the companion bill, which would give the power to deny first-class citizenship to gays and lesbians. That we will vigorously oppose.”

Polls show that about three-quarters of Hawaii residents oppose same-sex marriage. But both sides acknowledge that the vote on the constitutional amendment is not a sure thing. It will no doubt dominate public debate over the next year.

Asked if he was confident that the amendment would pass, Gabbard said: “No, I’m not. We expect a major media campaign on the other side, and we’ll be raising funds to counter that, with an emphasis on voter registration and educating the community.”

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Foley said voters here have shown some reluctance to pass constitutional amendments restricting rights.

“The perception that this is a done deal and it’s going to be separate and unequal is not correct,” he said. “We may very well end up to be a state with two options for same-sex couples, either full rights and duties of marriage or something less.”

In December, a Hawaii Circuit Court judge found that banning same-sex marriage was unjustified discrimination, but suspended his order legalizing the practice until it was appealed. The state Supreme Court could rule this summer on the case, known as Baehr vs. Miike. The court’s activities propelled legislators to reach an agreement, after having deadlocked on the issue previously.

“Without the same-sex marriage case, this benefits bill would not have passed,” Foley said. “The complaint was filed May 1 of 1991. Six years later, the most comprehensive package of rights for gays and lesbians passes. That’s not too bad. And we’re not finished. Civil rights struggles take time.”

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