By MARK NIESSE, Associated Press
HONOLULU -- Six gay couples in Hawaii are filing a lawsuit Thursday asking for the same rights as married couples, three weeks after Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed a same-sex civil unions measure.
The lawsuit doesn't seek the titles of "marriage" or "civil unions" for gay partners. Instead, it requests that the court system extend them the benefits and responsibilities of marriage based on the Hawaii Constitution's prohibition against sex discrimination.
"We continue to be discriminated against," said plaintiff Suzanne King, who has been in a relationship with her partner for 29 years. "We're a family unit, and we live our lives just like everyone else, but we aren't treated the same."
The legal action in state court comes as a response to the Republican governor's veto July 6, when she said voters should decide whether to reserve marriage for couples of a man and a woman.
Five other states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage. Five more states essentially grant the rights of marriage to same-sex couples without authorizing marriage itself.
Hawaii passed the nation's first "defense of marriage" constitutional amendment in 1998, giving the state's legislature the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples. The amendment is silent on civil unions and rights for same-sex couples.
Most Hawaii residents don't want the government to endorse equal rights for gay couples, said Garret Hashimoto, chairman for the Hawaii Christian Coalition.
"I feel insulted. They keep bringing up Martin Luther King, black rights and women's sufferage. This is not about that. This is about two males or two females practicing sex," he said. "It's behavior. It's no different from smokers or drinkers."
The office of Hawaii Attorney General Mark Bennett declined comment Wednesday because it hadn't yet been served with the lawsuit.
The state grants some rights to gay couples through its reciprocal beneficiaries system.
But they lack the same legal priviledges and obligations of adoption, child support, alimony and access to family court, said Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel for Lambda Legal, which is bringing the case along with the American Civil Liberties Union.
"This case is not about marriage. It's about the right of same-sex couples to at least have a system that is understandable and complete," Pizer said. "The state's equality guarantee at least has to mean same-sex couples should have the same rights and responsibilities, even if it's segmented off into a system that isn't as respected, understood and revered as marriage."
The case likely won't be settled until it reaches the Hawaii Supreme Court, or if state lawmakers and the next governor approve a new civil unions bill, Pizer said.