Yesterday, Hawaii’s governor signed a bill that would create the new legal status of civil unions, providing all of the benefits of marriage under a different name. Some of this is attributable to the state legislature’s one-party system (there are only seven Republicans in the house and one in the senate). Former governor Linda Lingle had vetoed an earlier version of the bill because it created de facto same-sex marriage and the people of Hawaii had rejected same-sex marriage in a 1998 vote to amend the state constitution.
There are now seven states with some marriage-in-all-but-name status (some are called civil unions, others domestic partnerships): California, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington. The civil union idea originally came from Vermont, where the supreme court said that the legislature could retain its marriage definition as long as it gave marriage benefits to same-sex couples (the New Jersey supreme court has made a similar ruling).
Activist groups have argued that civil unions are akin to segregation — a separate but equal legal status. A state’s adoption of civil unions, though, has often been a stepping stone to same-sex marriage. Some courts have said that the acceptance of civil unions signals that the state really has no justification for preventing same-sex marriage. Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont all had civil unions before they got same-sex marriage.
Hawaii’s version follows a recent trend of allowing both same- and opposite-sex couples to contract civil unions. This seems to signal that the state considers marriage just one item in a menu of adult relationships and thus may be a rehearsal for full marriage redefinition, codifying the idea that adult choice is the sole value deserving of the state’s respect.