It was an argument, and people driving on Beretania Street couldn’t miss it as they drove past the state Capitol about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday morning.

The young woman, in blue jeans and long blonde hair, held a rainbow-colored sign that read “All You Need Is Love.” She jabbed her finger repeatedly at the slightly older and taller man, who wore a suit and leaned his body back in response to the jabs.

His friend next to him held a sign that read, “Even God Says No To HB 444.”

That argument wasn’t an isolated incident.

Around noon, for example, a fistfight almost broke out between a man bearing a rainbow flag and opponents of House Bill 444. The man suggested the opponents should be wearing hoods a la the Ku Klux Klan.

“Christianity is supposed to be a religion of forgiveness,” the man charged, adding that Christians should be ashamed of their divorce rate. “Guess what? I’ve been with my man for 12 years.”

A sheriff’s deputy prevented one of the angered opponents from attacking the civil unions supporter, who was quickly escorted back to the other side of the Capitol Rotunda.

While the protests were mostly peaceful, the tough reality is that issues like civil unions bring out the worst in some people.

And now Gov. Linda Lingle wants the “reflection, collective wisdom and consent” of the masses to settle the fight over civil unions at the ballot.

“A vote by all the people of Hawaii is the best and fairest way to address an issue that elicits such deeply felt emotion by those both for and against,” she said.

As shown by what happened at the Capitol Tuesday — and by the reams and hours of testimony and debate on HB 444 over the past 18 months — there is little common ground when it comes to civil unions for gays and lesbians. It’s either seen as a civil rights issue, or a moral issue.

Exhibit A: “Lingle denied social justice when she vetoed HB 444,” said Carolyn Golojuch, president of PFLAG-Oahu, following the governor’s veto.

Exhibit B: “It was the depth of emotion felt by those on both sides of the issue that revealed to me how fundamental the institution of marriage is to our community,” said Lingle.

As with other emotional issues — gun ownership, immigration, stem-cell research, doctor-assisted suicide — a vote on civil unions will be won by whichever side can muster the most passion and voter turnout (this in a state notorious for voter apathy).

Lingle’s would-be successor, Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona, has already proposed a constitutional amendment “so the people can define marriage once and for all.”

Which is pretty much what they did 12 years ago, and by a 70 percent majority. Lingle mentioned that vote in her press conference Tuesday, as if the voters of yesterday were somehow being disenfranchised today.

In that vote, the Legislature was given the authority to define marriage. It wasn’t the public making the decision for the Legislature. The Legislature went on to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Then, this year, on the last day of the session, the House passed the civil unions measure, stating that it wasn’t marriage.

But Lingle wasn’t buying that argument. She said civil unions were “essentially marriage by another name.”

And though Lingle says politics did not influence her veto of HB 444, her call for a ballot question is strikingly similar to calls for a constitutional ban on gay marriage during the Bush II years. She blamed the Democratically controlled Legislature, accusing them of an 11th hour “flawed process” that “does not reflect the dignity this issue deserves.”

This is the same governor who waited until the final day to make her decision public — though she admitted she had made up her mind a week ago. She invited legislators to the press conference, only to rebuke them for how poorly they did their job.

In fact, it is the responsibility of elected leaders to make difficult decisions. If the voters disagree with them, they vote them out of office.

Ultimately the issue of civil unions — equal spousal rights for same-sex couples — will probably be settled through the courts, as was the case in ending school segregation, miscegenation laws and other “emotional” issues.

It was the U.S. Congress that passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended Jim Crow laws.

And it was a Hawaii governor that let a bill legalizing abortion become law without his signature.

Back at the Capitol on Tuesday, opponents of HB 444 sang “How Great Thou Art” while opponents blasted “Livin’ la Vida Loca.”

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