HONOLULU - Gov. Neil Abercrombie on Tuesday told a federal court that Hawaii law denies federal constitutional rights to same-sex couples who want to marry.
His stance on the issue came as his health director, Loretta Fuddy, told the same court that she would fight to uphold Hawaii's existing laws because her department is charged with implementing laws passed by the Legislature.
Both issued their opinions in responses to a lawsuit filed last year by two women who want to marry and not simply join in a civil union. Abercrombie signed Hawaii's civil union legislation into law last year. It allows same-sex and opposite-sex couples to enter into a civil union with the same state rights and responsibilities as traditional marriage.
But the governor said state law as it stands is unequal.
"Under current law, a heterosexual couple can choose to enter into a marriage or a civil union. A same-sex couple, however, may only elect a civil union. My obligation as governor is to support equality under law. This is inequality, and I will not defend it," he said in a statement.
His filing to U.S. District Court in Honolulu said, "There is no legitimate reason to deny otherwise qualified couples the ability to marry simply because they are of the same sex."
Fuddy said she decided to defend the lawsuit after consulting with the governor.
"The Department of Health is charged with implementing the law as passed by the Legislature. Absent any ruling to the contrary by competent judicial authority regarding constitutionality, the law will be enforced. Because I am being sued for administering the law, I will also defend it," she said.
Natasha Jackson and Janin Kleid of Kapolei, Oahu, sued the state in December, saying they are being denied their constitutional right to marry. They argue that they need to be married in order to get certain federal benefits.
Jackson was unable to get insurance coverage for Kleid under the federal Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA, because they weren't married. Their lawsuit alleged that the couple has remained true to one another and steadfast during their four-year relationship even as they have suffered serious health problems and lost jobs.
"They pool their resources to share expenses and have been each other's main source of emotional support," the lawsuit said.
John D'Amato, the attorney for Jackson and Kleid, said the governor's position was courageous.
"I think it represents a sea change in Hawaii politics to have a leader of his stature to come out so directly and say this is just wrong. It's just wrong to continue to deny same-sex couples the right to marry," D'Amato said.
The governor's filing won't have a practical significance because the Health Department will continue to uphold the law, D'Amato said. As for the lawsuit, D'Amato said it wouldn't hurt but it also wouldn't help as U.S. District Court Judge Alan Kay will be ruling on the issue, and he's not constrained by the governor's remarks.