Gov. Linda Lingle said no to civil unions Tuesday, vetoing House Bill 444.

HB 444 would have extended to same-sex and opposite-sex couples the same legal rights and obligations as marriage.

“I am vetoing this bill because I have become convinced that this issue is of such societal importance that it deserves to be decided by all the citizens of Hawaii,” Lingle said in a televised news conference from her office. (Read her formal statement of objections and the statement she read at the news conference.)

With her decision, Lingle keeps Hawaii on the side of 36 states that do not legally recognize same-sex marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships.

The governor made the announcement at 3 p.m. in a highly-anticipated presentation, with invited guests including the retired Hawaii Supreme Court justice whose 1993 opinion marked the beginning of the state’s debate on gay rights. The governor invited opponents and proponents of the measure to attend.

House Bill 444 has been controversial since its introduction in the 2009 session of the State Legislature. It was co-sponosored by Rep. Blake Oshiro, the House majority leader, and most House Democrats. Lingle said the process by which the bill was approved by the House on the last day of the legislative session was “flawed.” She called for a vote by all the people of Hawaii as the best way to deal with the question of whether civil unions should become law. She said she made her decision on the bill about a week ago.

“It would be a mistake to allow a decision of this magnitude to be made by one individual or a small group of elected individuals,” she said. Instead, it should be made by the people of Hawaii in the voting booth.

The decision drew an immediate response from Equality Hawaii, the leading backer of the bill.

“We fail to see how the governor’s actions are in the best interest of Hawaii’s future and are nothing more than political maneuvering at the expense of people’s lives,” said Alan Spector, legislative affairs co-chair of Equality Hawaii. “We’re disappointed and outraged that same sex families will not be treated equally under Hawaii law but vow to come back and fight this fight another day.”

Former Congressman Neil Abercrombie, a Democratic candidate for governor, said “it will be up to the next Governor and Legislature to ensure that all people of Hawaii receive equal treatment. Protecting people’s civil rights cannot be compromised. I am committed to that most essential of constitutional imperatives.”

Lingle’s lieutenant governor, James “Duke” Aiona, a Republican candidate for governor, commended Lingle for her decision and promised to propose “a constitutional amendment on this issue so the people can define marriage once and for all.”

“As I have always said, this issue will persist as long as lawmakers continue to keep the public from deciding whether marriage should be between a man and a woman,” Aiona said.

Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who’s expected to step down this month to run for the Democratic nomination for governor, was the last to issue a statement.

“Now that the governor has decided the fate of House Bill 444, I firmly support steps to let the people of Hawaii have the final say on an issue that has generated passionate perspectives,” he said. “If given the opportunity, I know the people of Hawaii will have the wisdom and compassion to make a decision that reflects our values and goals for a fair and open society.”

A news release from Lambda Legal and the ACLU said the groups were readying a lawsuit in response to the veto.

“This was a sad surrender to political expediency that does not support business or family interests, but damages them,” said Jennifer C. Pizer, National Marriage Project Director for Lambda Legal.

Lingle’s decision today is the latest chapter in Hawaii’s deliberation over the rights of same-sex couples that began nearly two decades ago.

The battle over civil unions has been political, financial, moral and emotional. On Tuesday, hundreds of supporters and opponents gathered at the state Capitol to express their views.

But, ultimately, the decision was Lingle’s alone.

The bill passed the House in 2009 but was held in the Senate, which amended language in the bill to allow heterosexual couples to apply for civil unions as well as same-sex couples.

The bill carried over to the 2010 session and passed the Senate in January 18-7, a veto-proof majority. But on Jan. 29, House members indefinitely postponed action on the bill.

HB 444 was presumed dead for the session, but supporters — including several lawmakers — began working behind the scenes to revive it. On April 29, the last day of session, the House passed the amended bill 31-20, three votes shy of a veto override.

On June 21, Lingle informed legislators that HB 444 was on a list of potential vetoes.

Since HB 444’s passage in late April, opponents of the legislation — led by the Hawaii Family Forum — and proponents — led by a half-dozen gay-rights and civil-rights groups — have lobbied for their respective positions. Lingle met privately with both proponents and opponents before making her decision, which she said will be “the most watched decision that I’ve ever made.”

If she had taken a different stance, it would have put her at odds with her own party, which at its recent state convention took a position opposing civil unions.

The chairman of the Republican Party of Hawaii, Jonah Ka’auwai, issued a statement praising the governor.

“Today is an important day for the people of Hawaii. HB 444 catered to those seeking to establish the equivalent of same-sex marriage and it ignored the will of Hawaii’s citizens.

“It is clear that a (Mufi) Hannemann or Abercrombie Administration would have signed the bill into law against the people of Hawaii who believe in traditional marriage.”

Share your thoughts on Lingle’s decision in our civil unions discussion.

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