Starting today, many of the benefits available to married people in Hawaii will also be offered to gay couples, siblings and roommates, under a first-in-the-nation law that was enacted to head off homosexual marriages.
The bill was expected to be signed by Gov. Ben Cayetano on Tuesday.
The law would give any two adults who can’t legally marry the right to share medical insurance and state pensions. They would also get inheritance rights, the right to joint property ownership and the right to sue for wrongful death.
“This is an unprecedented move. It’s the broadest recognition of untraditional marriage ever. But this is not exactly what the gay and lesbian community asked for,” said attorney Dan Foley, who represents three homosexual couples who are suing the state for the right to marry.
That lawsuit led to a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling in 1993 that it is unconstitutional to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In response to the ruling, the Legislature passed the same-sex benefits bill along with a proposal that would negate the Supreme Court ruling by amending the state constitution to ban gay marriages.
Under the same-sex benefits law, couples don’t even have to know each other, live together, or be state residents to apply. They only have to be 18 and legally barred from marrying each other.
That makes a vast number of people eligible for the benefits and that’s creating confusion.
“The issues are coming fast and furious on this one,” said Patrick Johnston, spokesman for the state Health Department, which is processing applications. “The latest wrinkle is how it affects some federal laws.”
The state expects thousands of applications in the next few months. Businesses are panicking over how much money they will have to pay for extra medical insurance costs.
The first 25 couples who have applied will receive their benefits certificates this week. A large majority of the couples so far are same-sex.
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