Honolulu Star-Bulletin, February 3, 2000
Box 3080, Honolulu, HI, 96802
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Senators want to restore unwed partners' benefits

By Bruce Dunford, Associated Press

    The co-chairmen of the Senate Judiciary Committee are moving to restore the "reciprocal beneficiary" benefits for public employees that were part of the compromise for breaking the emotional deadlock over the gay marriage issue.

    The unmarried partners of about 60 public employees and retirees lost their health benefits at the end of June after the Legislature failed to extend the 1997 law providing coverage to domestic couples who, by law, cannot marry.

    The Legislature approved the reciprocal beneficiary law to give gay couples some of the same benefits as married couples in anticipation of voter approval in 1998 of a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriages.

    Although the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled last year that gay couples' claims they are entitled to receive marriage licenses was moot because of the new amendment, it left untouched its 1993 ruling that gay couples are entitled to the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples.

    Gay couples received some of those rights - such as hospital visitation, property rights and family leave - under the 1997 state law.  Others - such as health benefits, inheritance and adoption privileges - were withheld.

    Dan Foley, who represented the three gay couples whose lawsuit resulted in the 1993 ruling that they were entitled to marriage licenses, has warned that unless there is a comprehensive domestic partnership law, the legal case will continue.

    Sen. Matt Matsunaga said the bill he and Judiciary Co-Chairman Avery Chumbley (D, Kihei) introduced would restore the health insurance benefits for public employees.

    "Others want to go farther.  They want a comprehensive domestic partnership law," Matsunaga (D, Palolo) said.

    The House's Democratic majority has taken no position on reciprocal beneficiaries or domestic partnerships because there is no consensus on the issue among the 39 members.

    Sen. Norman Sakamoto (D, Moanalua), who supported banning gay marriages, questioned the need to restore the reciprocal beneficiary benefits when it involves so few public employees.

    He said lawmakers should concentrate on education and the economy instead of again taking up what would be a controversial issue.