HONOLULU -- Hawaii Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed same-sex civil unions into law Feb. 23, a week after the bill passed the state Legislature, calling it a "triumph for everyone."
Civil unions will be legal in the 50th state beginning Jan. 1, 2012. The law extends the same rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities of spouses in marriage to homosexual couples in a civil union.
The Hawaii Catholic Conference said it was disappointed with lawmakers' support for the measure and the governor's endorsement.
"Passage of this legislation is just a step toward the legalization of same-sex marriage," said the conference, the church's public policy arm, in a Feb. 23 statement.
"Marriage is what it is and always has been, no matter how this Legislature defines it; however, the public understanding of marriage will be negatively affected by passage of a law that ignores the natural fact that sexual complementarity is at the very core of marriage," it said. "The impact of this legislation on Catholic ministries remains an important and thus far unanswered concern."
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Meanwhile in Maryland, a committee of the House of Delegates opened a hearing about same-sex marriage Feb. 25; a vote by the full House was expected to follow quickly. The state Senate passed the measure Feb. 24, and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has promised to sign it into law.
In a homily Feb. 13 at an archdiocesan Mass for World Marriage Day, Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien said the recognition of marriage as being between one man and one woman is not arbitrary.
"This recognition, bestowed on marriage by societies throughout human history, originates in a simple biological fact," he said. "The union of one man and one woman is the only relationship capable of creating children and nurturing them together as father and mother."
In late January in Hawaii, Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva wrote to state senators urging them to vote against legalizing civil union, saying passage of the measure would have "detrimental effects."
The bishop described the legislation as discriminating against non-Western cultures, children and family members.
"Civil unions, while they may not be the exact equivalent of marriage, are so much like marriage that our acceptance of them will ultimately force us into accepting same-sex marriage," he wrote. "We should not be afraid to identify the desire of same-sex couples to enshrine these unions in law as a manufactured civil right and not a true civil right based upon our human dignity."
Abercrombie's signing the bill into law coincided with President Barack Obama's Feb. 23 order for his administration to stop defending a federal law banning same-sex marriages.
The Hawaii law follows years of court fights, protest rallies and debate on the subject.
Last summer, then-Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed a bill that would have established civil unions in Hawaii, saying she believed the legislation was "essentially (same-sex) marriage by another name." The Catholic conference and the Hawaii Family Forum praised her decision, saying it affirmed "the will of Hawaii citizens."