Hawaii's Civil Union Law Greeted With Lawsuit

     HONOLULU (CN) - Two Christian churches have filed a federal complaint to stop Hawaii's new civil union law in its tracks, claiming the legislation is unconstitutional.
     Set to take effect on Jan. 1, the law makes Hawaii the seventh state to give same-sex couples the same rights and benefits as married couples, via application of the tax code.
     "The family court of each circuit shall have jurisdiction over all proceedings relating to the annulment, divorce, and separation of civil unions entered into in this state in the same manner as marriages," Act 1 reads.
     Although not legal marriage, some believe the law could lead to such. Applications are already available online and will be accepted only at the state health department, in person, starting Jan. 1.
     Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, signed the bill into law on Feb. 23, after the state Senate passed it 19-6 and the House 31-19. His Republican predecessor, Gov. Linda Lingle, vetoed a different version of the law last year.
     Before signing the bill into law, Abercrombie said, "The legalization of civic unions in Hawaii represents, in my mind, equal rights for all people. All people here, all who visit us. They protect our diversity, they protect our civil rights, they protect who we are as a people here in Hawaii. If there's anything that the word aloha means, it's that our diversity defines us, rather than divides us."
     He said the state Legislature showed "civic courage" and a "public conscience."
     "This has been an emotional process, but everyone has been involved. This process is now ended. Everyone has been heard, all points of view have been respected. ... This represents a triumph for everyone. We are not singling out an elite. We are not going after a special interest. This is, in fact, an interest, which is, something that provides for everyone."
     Abercrombie posted live coverage of the historic event on YouTube.
     Licensed and willing judges or clergy members must solemnize a civil union, but none are required to do so, nor are they subject to any penalty for refusing, according to the new law.
     "Nothing in this section shall be construed to require any person authorized to perform solemnizations pursuant to chapter 572 or civil unions pursuant to this chapter to perform a solemnization of a civil union, and no such authorized person who fails or refuses for any reason to join persons in a civil union shall be subject to any fine or other penalty for the failure or refusal," the legislation reads.
     Two Christian churches and their pastors filed the first federal complaint over the law Wednesday, alleging violation of their civil rights.
     They say Act 1 wrongfully fails to exempt the clergy and churches from hosting such events.
     "Neither Act 1 not it's [sic] implementing regulations exempts religious institutions, churches and houses of worship, clergy, officers and members from being subject to the injunctive relief and fine provisions of H. R. S. 489," the complaint states. "Within the last 12 months, private individuals have already initiated complaints with the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission against churches and houses of worship for refusing to rent their facilities for same-sex unions and/or marriage ceremonies."
     Claiming the law will have a "chilling effect" on the free exercise of religion, the groups want a judge to issue a permanent injunction and declare the law unconstitutional. They are represented by Shawn Luiz.
     The plaintiffs are Emmanuel Temple, the House of Praise, and its pastor, Carl E. Harris, and Lighthouse Outreach Center Assembly of God, and its pastor, Joel Hunkin. They sued the state, Gov. Abercrombie and state health director Loretta Fuddy.