By MARK NIESSE Associated Press Writer © 2010 The Associated Press
Jan. 29, 2010, 9:01PM
HONOLULU — Hawaii lawmakers declined to vote Friday on a bill that would have allowed same-sex civil unions, effectively killing the measure.
State House leaders said a narrow majority of representatives would have voted for civil unions, but they decided to indefinitely postpone a decision on whether to grant gay and lesbian couples the same rights and benefits the state provides to married couples.
Civil union supporters in the crowded House gallery on Friday shouted, "Shame on you!" while opponents cheered.
"It's an election year, and they're more concerned about keeping their seats than doing what's right," said Stephen Nagle of Kaaawa, wearing a rainbow lei in support of civil unions.
The state Senate had approved a civil unions bill last week. But House leadership wavered on pushing the controversial issue. Last year, 33 of 51 House members voted in favor of civil unions.
Civil union opponents, who have staged several large rallies at the Capitol, wore red "iVote" stickers and white shirts to show unity.
"We're a very tolerant society, but I don't think we're willing to accept same-sex marriage, or as they call it, civil unions," said Dennis Arakaki, head of the Hawaii Family Forum and Hawaii Catholic Conference.
No roll call was taken on the decision to postpone the vote, which shielded representatives from having their positions on the record. Instead, lawmakers shouted "aye" or "no," and Vice Speaker of the House Michael Magaoay then ruled that the motion to delay a vote had passed.
The voice vote defers further action on the bill unless two-thirds of lawmakers vote to reconsider it; otherwise, Hawaii's debate on the issue is over for this year.
"You can call me a coward, but we are all not cowards. We'll make our tough decisions as we go ahead," Democratic Speaker of the House Calvin Say said he told civil union backers. "But members were concerned, and that was my role as the speaker to make that determination and decision to do what we did today."
Republican Gov. Linda Lingle had refused to say whether she would have vetoed a civil unions bill if lawmakers had approved it.
"Something so divisive at the beginning of session wouldn't be a good thing, so I'm glad they made that decision," Lingle said.
Had a civil unions bill been enacted, Hawaii would have joined California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington, all of which grant essentially all the rights of marriage to same-sex couples without authorizing marriage itself. Five other states permit same-sex marriage: Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
People from both sides said they were disappointed they didn't get closure with a vote, and they pledged to fight just as hard if civil unions are proposed again next year.
"The decision not to vote on the issue, because it is an election year, it was a good idea on their part," said Leona Kaapuni of Nanakuli. "The fact that it's not settled is still kind of discouraging. It's just an issue that's going to continue."
The Aloha State has been a battleground in the gay rights movement since the early 1990s. A 1993 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling nearly made it the first state to legalize same-sex marriage before voters overwhelmingly approved the nation's first "defense of marriage" constitutional amendment in 1998.
The amendment gave the Legislature the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples. It resulted in a law banning gay marriage in Hawaii but left the door open for civil unions.
"Hawaii has definitely been on the forefront, both good and bad, in how the movement has ebbed and flowed," said Tony Wagner, Western Regional Field Director for the Human Rights Campaign. "Anytime you have vocal advocates on both sides with a very persuadable issue, you're going to see action taken."
Associated Press Writer Audrey McAvoy contributed to this report.