If the House Judiciary Committee passes Senate Bill 232 unamended late Tuesday, a Hawaii civil unions measure could be on Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s desk this week.

Abercrombie has said repeatedly that he would sign such a bill. SB 232 is actually House Bill 444 by another name. HB 444, you may recall, was the civil unions measure vetoed by Gov. Linda Lingle last July.

The Senate passed the new bill 19-6 on Jan. 28. If it becomes law, Hawaii would officially recognize same-sex unions beginning next Jan. 1.

It would be history-making legislation, and supporters of the bill will rejoice (because they say it’s a matter of equal rights) while opponents will mourn (because they say civil unions is marriage by another name) at the end of a struggle that began two decades ago.

Democrats control both chambers and the governorship, and while it appears the party has united on a single civil unions measure, there are actually five bills related to civil unions in the 2011 Legislature. The bill that appears to be moving to the governor’s desk makes the fewest changes from HB 444 that passed last year.

Senate Bill 231 is a more extensively crafted measure that seeks to address many questions — on taxes and benefits, for example — that SB 232 does not.

Another measure, House Bill 1623, would do the same as SB 231. Its lead sponsor is House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro and it has 21 co-sponsors including Speaker Calvin Say and two Republicans.

Among other things, SB 232 and HB 1623 address concerns involving the federal tax code and state law on child custody and family court. They also address annulment, divorce and separation.

So why not go further on the civil unions law?

The short answer: political expediency. There are many pressing matters before the Legislature and the governor, starting with the budget.

Civil unions has been a highly divisive issue that has sucked up a lot of time and attention over the years, and other hot-button social issues like gambling, decriminalizing marijuana and doctor-assisted suicide have returned for another go-around in the 2011 legislative session.

Another reason for going with the less-comprehensive SB 232: political maneuvering.

Though the language in SB 231 and HB 1623 was agreed upon by the administration, House and Senate leaders and legal advisors — and though Abercrombie had planned to introduce a civil unions bill as part of his administrative package (but ended up not even mentioning civil unions in his State of the State address) — it was all for naught.

That’s because Sen. Clayton Hee — on Jan. 21, three days before the State of the State — scheduled SB 232 for a hearing in his Judiciary and Labor Committee on Jan. 25.

Privately, supporters of the more expansive SB 231 and HB 1623 would prefer that one of the measures be approved. But neither has yet to receive a hearing, and lawmakers in both the House and Senate told Civil Beat it’s not likely to happen.

What will probably happen is that lawmakers will follow up with fixes to SB 232 to address the exact same concerns that SB 231 and HB 1623 took pains to deal with. Indeed, the same would have happened to HB 444 had it become law (even with the pesky retroactive date of Jan. 1, 2010).

Two Other Civil Unions Bills

With all the attention on SB 232, it may come as a surprise that there’s a fourth civil unions bill — HB 1453.

That may be because the bill, which also addresses the state’s reciprocal beneficiaries law, is 72,500 words and 471 pages long.

The bill also establishes civil unions, “provides to civil union partners the benefits and obligations conferred upon a couple by marriage” and “provides for termination of civil unions through the judicial system.”

The fate of HB 1453, introduced by Reps. Scott Saiki, Chris Lee and Mina Morita, is uncertain. (Lee and Morita are also co-introducers of Oshiro’s HB 1623, and Morita will soon leave the House to become chairwoman of the state’s Public Utilities Commission).

And, there is a fifth measure related to civil unions: House Bill 1244, which “allows for the refusal of services or accommodations related to the solemnization of same-sex marriages, civil unions, and other same-sex unions on religious grounds.”

HB 1244, introduced by request by Rep. Joe Souki, seems superfluous, as SB 232 — i.e., the bill that is likely to pass — has specific language to make sure no person will be punished for refusing to perform a civil unions ceremony. SB 231 and HB 1623 — i.e., the bills that likely won’t pass — contain similar provisions.

The solemnization bill and the 471-page bill are scheduled to be heard along with SB 232 Tuesday beginning at 2:15 p.m. in the Capitol Auditorium.

Caveats

If Tuesday’s hearing is similar to the Senate’s hearing of SB 232 last month, hundreds of people will turn out to testify.

Given the makeup of the House Judiciary Committee — i.e., comprised mostly of representatives who have supported civil unions in the past — SB 232 appears headed for passage and Abercrombie’s desk. A long and contentious chapter in Hawaii’s social history will be closed.

There are three caveats, however.

The first is if SB 232 is amended, perhaps to include language from SB 231 or HB 1623. The amended bill would have to go back to the Senate for approval, delaying its path to the governor.

The second is if opponents of SB 232 make a concerted effort to stop it. While the arc of justice seems to be bending toward civil unions, a Capitol packed with hundreds or more opponents could push the arc in another direction.

The third caveat is that Hawaii’s battle over civil unions may ultimately be short-lived.

The federal government, after all, is ending the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. And Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the landmark case on California’s ban of same-sex marriage, seems destined for the U.S. Supreme Court.

As one testifier pointed out during Senate testimony on SB 232, Hawaii’s actions on civil unions will be moot should the high court rule that Americans can’t be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation — even when it comes to marriage.

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