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No Aloha for Civil Unions

February 10, 2010 - Trisha Smith
Religious overtones cloud an issue that many see as a civil right.

I chose to continue my front page news story from this week’s issue via this blog space because I felt there was more to report and discuss than our paper’s print version could fit. (See “Civil Unions Undecided” in the Feb. 11-17 issue of the Maui Weekly.)

As you may be well aware of, Hawai‘i’s House of Representatives pretty much killed a bill recently that would have extended “the same rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities of spouses in a marriage to partners in a civil union,” according to the description of House Bill 444.

The bill was amended to include opposite-sex couples as well at the end of 2009 Legislative Session, so no matter whom you choose to enter into a social institution and contract with—as I like to refer to a civil union—your rights would be protected and benefits deserving of your commitment would be upheld on a state level.

No such luck.

The Speaker of the House Calvin Say tabled the bill for the remainder of this session and our representatives were not given a chance to vote. There is slight possibility that bill could be addressed again if called up again by a vote, but for now, the issue is postponed indefinitely within this legislative year.

Was it election year politics? Had the House really pulled back on its support of the bill even though they passed it just last year? Did Say make the right decision? Why has our state put this sensitive bill on the back burner, again?

Whatever you think the real reason may be, it’s still an issue we will have to face one day.

Five states—Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Iowa and Connecticut—allow same-sex marriage. Washington D.C. is on the verge of legalizing it soon, as the bill awaits Congressional review. Just this week, Iowa’s legalization of gay marriage was challenged as an attempt in the Iowa House posed to bring up a debate for a proposed constitutional amendment that would define marriage as only between one man and one woman in the state. It failed. Opposition in New Hampshire could lead to similar action by its legislatures soon.

Same-sex couples did enjoy a short stint of liberty in Maine and California until voters in each state repealed a law that would have let the couples wed. California’s Proposition 8 (also known as the California Marriage Protection Act, a constitutional amendment which stated that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California”) is still making headlines on the Mainland with supporters and opponents doing their best to sway voters as the issue could be back on the ballots early as this fall.

Also, the intriguing 2010 California Marriage Protection Act is a piece of proposed legislation that seeks to expand Prop 8—which ultimately banned gay marriage. The new legislation would ban divorce in the state. It states “no party to any marriage shall be restored to the state of an unmarried person during the lifetime of the other party.”

The initiative’s authors said they “seek to ban the institution of divorce in the state of California in order to bring the state back to the traditional values that it has abandoned.”
And you have to admire their mission statement of “You said ‘til death do us part.’ You’re not dead yet.” Wow.

If this passes—highly unlikely in my opinion—there could be quite a drop in the number of couples would choose to marry in California, which ultimately could be a good idea.

Going back to Hawai‘i, supporters of the civil unions bill found themselves engulfed in a world of opposition from several religious groups who felt the need to step up for the tradition of marriage over the last two sessions, including a group called Hawai‘i Family Forum (HFF).

HFF is basically a grassroots organization made up of people from many churches that work together on issues. “There’s really a need to engage young people to vote and get them to be aware of the issues,” said Dennis Arakaki, lead coordinator of HFF and Hawai‘i Catholic Conference. “It’s their futures.”

Their iVote campaign served as a vehicle to get people more involved in politics and issues, including organizing rallies held at the state Capitol to promote the tradition of marriage. HFF has liaisons throughout all the isles, and Maui was the only one who chose to hold a rally as well in January.

“Man and woman is the basic foundation of marriage and family, and raise children in a complimentary way,” said Arakaki.

“I don’t see how it harms in any way the tradition of marriage, or change the definition of marriage in any way,” said Sen. Roz Baker.

Procreation has been thrown around as an excuse for not justifying same-sex unions or marriage, as homosexuals have the “wrong ingredients” to have children. This argument is difficult to take seriously, in my opinion. Although I’ve never been married, I assume there’s nothing you have to sign that says you vow to procreate when you get married. You cannot assume heterosexual couples will conceive children together, hence perpetuating society, nor can you assume a same-sex couple wouldn’t be able to raise a child in a safe and loving environment. There are way too many parent-less children out there and there are plenty of heterosexual couples that raise children who should not. But, that’s a whole other blog…

From what I understand, as an institution, marriage helps provide legal protection and stability—financial and social benefits. Two individuals work together to create a loving bond in a home and community, which furthers general social stability. To me, that seems like a conservative American value, not a church tradition.

“We don’t bring politics into the church,” said Kïhei Baptist Church Pastor David Bray. “Although, we do support that marriage—designed from the very beginning—as between one man and one woman.”

The pastor faced some controversy recently as a sign outside his church along South Kïhei Road stated that “salvation removes the haze, maze and gaze.”

During a phone call, I asked him what he meant by sign. He contended something in the regard that when you put your trust in Christ, it removes that haze when it comes to eternity, and a life is a maze, and when your accept salvation, that gaze of uncertainty is removed.

I guess I understand what he is saying, yet the message could easily be misinterpreted, especially during a time where the gay community of Maui is feeling discriminated against.

Sandy Farmer-Wiley has been at the forefront of activism for civil rights and an advocate of nonviolence for over three decades now on the Valley Isle.

In a letter to the pastor, Farmer-Wiley stated that the sign was “sporting ‘Hate Speak’ and is party to ‘Spiritual Violence’” and that the pastor was using his position as a spiritual leader to spread a message.

“I don’t know in which way you anticipate ‘Salvation’ removing Gaze (Gays) but remember that the words of your mouth can shortly become the violence of some weak minded soul’s hand,” she stated in a recent email to the church.

Farmer-Wiley and other members of the community who were offended by the sign made several phone calls, sent emails and even held a small protest in front of the church on Sunday morning, Feb. 7. All in all, they just wanted an apology from the pastor and for him to take responsibility, innocently or not.

“I believe coming at the same time as the tabling of HB 444 and not returning inquiring phone calls, including my own, makes it hard for me to believe that gaze is not gays,” said Farmer-Wiley.
 
In a reply to Farmer-Wiley’s inquiries about the sign, Pastor Bray revealed that the same quote had been up several years ago and no one complained.

The pastor said it was neither vindictive nor mean-spirited in anyway. “The thought never crossed my mind that this would offend anyone,” he said.

After speaking with Pastor Bray, and hearing the strain in his voice, I did believe him. He doesn’t seem to be a hateful man in any way nor did it appear that there was any intention to offend anyone. It seems the message was misconstrued.

Yet, I do believe the church was being naïve and should have responded immediately by removing the sign if it did offend so many community members, and at least return a few phone calls from those offended. It took over a week for a new message to appear outside the Kïhei church.

Many feel there needs to be a separation of church and state when addressing same-sex unions.

“The bill is, technically, a contract for couples, not religious-based at all,” said Rep. Joe Bertram III. “With this bill, we would be eliminating the barriers that stand in the way of equality.”

I spoke with a few individuals from the Human Rights Campaign, including Tony Wagner who asserted that gay couples don’t want to redefine marriage—especially on a religious level—they just want civil rights. We discussed how it was frustrating that legislators decided to shy away from such issues during an election year and how homosexuals are being treated as “second-class citizens.”

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there are 1,138 legal provisions that marital status is a factor in establishing benefits and rights the government provides. That’s marriage.

If someone enters into a civil union, they are awarded only around 300 rights, benefits and privileges by their state, yet still face federal disregard.

Would those opposed to civil unions also vote against racial equality?

“We’re supporting the traditional definition of marriage—that’s what we are standing up for,” said Arakaki. “It has nothing to do with equality or race.”

Rep. Bertram commented how his parents dealt with a time where couples of different races were unable to get married, and that by not passing this civil unions legislation, we were taking a step back.

“To pass this legislation would be a step in the right direction for future generations, generations that hopefully will see this issue as something of the past,” he said.

Equality under the law in our nation extends to individuals of all races, origins and religions, according to our Constitution. Denying individuals the same protection under the law on a basis of their sexual orientation is wrong.

“In the end, we are trying to support liberty and justice for all,” said Sen. Kalani English.

“Fair is fair, yet fear of the unknown is scary,” said Jean Walker, Farmer-Wiley’s wife. The couple made it an official marriage in Vermont this last November after over three decades together.

“And, ironically enough, it could help our economy as a lot of gay couples enjoy traveling to Hawai‘i," said Walker of HB444. "We don’t want to put out a negative reception, yet we are by continually denying this legislation.”

A recent report by the Community Marketing Inc. of San Francisco revealed the Aloha State ranks 18th for leisure LGBT destination. In the past, places like Maui have ranked near the top.

In a Jan. 25 article from Pacific Business News, David Paisley, senior program manager for Community Marketing, said Hawaii has been slipping for a decade.

Paisley said a major reason for the decline in popularity among LGBT travelers is that the state does little to market to them.

“In the gay and lesbian travel market, Hawai‘i has been largely nonexistent,” he said. “Hawai‘i almost seems scared of it.”

He said Hawai‘i should be “waving their rainbow-colored flag.” Indeed.

“I hope our government hears our voices and will one day make the most rational decision,” said Farmer-Wiley.

Marty Guerriero, president of Both Sides Now, a nonprofit organization that serves Maui’s LGBT community, agrees with others who feel there needs to be a separation of church and state.

“This is a civil right issue, not a religious one,” he said. “It’s frustrating to hear mistruths are coming from congregations. We just want the same rights as straight couples, not redefine their definition of marriage.”

“How do you argue against people who want to marry more than one person?” said Arakaki. “We should hold a standard.”

Yet, in reality, marriage is a process of the law, a piece of paper. Marriage has varying definitions and origins throughout history, yet it is no secret that property was the main factor of the commitment. Who gets what when whomever dies, etc., etc.?

The church ceremony is a separate form of marital recognition that came along through history, a second form of identification when it comes to “lifelong commitment.” Many couples of today do not even hold a church ceremony, and get married only once, by the state—the religious marriage is option.

Even if and/or when the bill passes, churches will still have the option to accept or refuse any marriage. No government has recommended that any group be forced to perform and/or recognize marriages of same-sex couples. The government is not required to define marriage religiously, and in turn religious groups are not obligated to define marriage along civil lines.

Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai‘i Foundation (ACLU) announced recently they were planning legal action against the state following the House’s decision to not vote on HB444, citing their clients suffer inequalities and denial of basic rights Hawai‘i’s constitution still guarantees them.

Marriage Project Director Jennifer C. Pizer for Lambda Legal said in a release that reciprocal beneficiaries relegate gay people to “a lower status that withholds vital protections in areas ranging from parenting to financial stability.” “We simply can’t stand by passively observing anymore,” she said.
 
Speaking with a friend one afternoon, we were discussing why the issue of same-sex unions and marriage was still such an issue in our country today, especially Hawai‘i, a state that consists of various ethnic groups and welcomes all visitors from abroad with “the spirit of aloha.”

“Why is everyone still so concerned with who everyone is sleeping with?” he said. “Rights are rights and we are in a time where we can’t ignore equal rights anymore.”

Unless you live in an extremely sheltered life, nearly everyone has encountered, known or had friends or family members who were homosexual. And guess what—they are all God’s children, in my opinion.

My Christian mother—though her beliefs on the subject of homosexuality may vary from mine in some regards—has always taught me to accept love and God into my heart, and live honestly. “Stand up for what you believe” and “as long as you’re happy… ” were phrases I heard frequently. Although she does believe in the sanctity of marriage as between a man and a woman, she does support that same-sex couples have some equalities when it comes to benefits and rights. On a civil level she supports it, but as Christian she won't acknowledge it. A contradictory subject this has become…

I just think if two people really feel the need to enter into a social contract of marriage and want to receive the same rights as other citizens, it should be a no-brainer. And if they want to commit their love through God, they should be able to do so as well.

If I ever choose to get married, I would most likely make it official twice—once “upstairs” and once “downstairs.” This would make my parents happy, but yet I have been pondering getting a civil union as well, if I am ever allowed to do so in this state. I have plenty of close friends that I would want to "go into business with" until this alleged love of my life in shining armor trots my way on a white unicorn. Hey, a girl can dream…

Let’s face the truth—families of today come in all kinds, shapes, sizes and colors. And, opinions of people have evolved and changed. Think back 10 or 20 years-—did you ever think a black president would ever become a reality? And, by the way, President Obama did campaign that he would improve gay rights. Last summer, he signed a referendum allowing the same-sex partners of federal employees to receive benefits, however, they will not be allowed full health coverage. Yet, still a step in a progressive direction.

The Hawaiian Isles consist of communities of many minorities and deep in the values of family and fairness. It’s only right that we provide a safe, legal place for all couples to pursue their happiness and live happily ever after.

No matter what side you stand on any issue, it’s your democratic right to contact your legislators and relay your opinions. Visit www.capitol.hawaii.gov/.

And, if you agree or disagree with me, feel free to contact me. I’m not saying I’m right about anything. I am just relaying an educated stance on a controversial subject. Thanks for visiting my blog.


Aloha! 

 
 

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Blog Photos

Protestors came out on Sunday, Feb. 7, to oppose some signage at a Kïhei church. They felt the awkward rhyme was a "tongue-in-cheek jab" at the homosexual community during a sensitive time of legislation.