Rhode Island Lawmakers Approve Civil Unions
New York Time
June 29, 2011
Rhode Island Lawmakers Approve Civil Unions
By ABBY GOODNOUGH
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Less than a week after same-sex marriage
was legalized in New York, the Rhode Island State Senate on Wednesday evening
approved a bill allowing not marriage, but civil unions for gay couples,
despite fierce opposition from gay rights advocates who called the legislation
The bill, which already passed in the state’s House of
Representatives and which the governor said he was likely to sign, grants gay
and lesbian couples most of the rights and benefits that Rhode Island provides
married couples. It was offered as a compromise this spring after Gordon D.
Fox, the openly gay speaker of the Democratic-controlled House, said he could
not muster enough votes to pass a same-sex marriage bill.
Gay marriage advocates initially had high hopes for success
in Rhode Island this year. The new governor, Lincoln D. Chafee, an independent,
had championed their cause, and Mr. Fox, who became speaker last year, also
appeared eager to get a marriage bill passed. The state’s two closest
neighbors, Connecticut and Massachusetts, allow gay couples to marry, as do New
Hampshire and Vermont.
But M. Teresa Paiva Weed, a Democrat and the State Senate
president, opposes gay marriage, and Mr. Fox ultimately threw his support to
civil unions, saying that was a more realistic goal.
Gay rights advocates say the bill is unacceptable because it
allows religious organizations not to recognize the unions. For example, they
say, a Catholic hospital could choose not to allow a lesbian to make medical
decisions on behalf of her partner, and a Catholic university could deny family
medical leave to gay employees.
“It’s a permission slip to ignore legal obligations,” said
Karen L. Loewy, a lawyer at Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, or GLAD.
Some opponents of same-sex marriage, including the Roman
Catholic Church, are also against the civil unions bill. But Ms. Paiva Weed
said she saw it as a worthy compromise.
“We have moved one step in the right direction toward
ensuring that individuals receive equal rights and protections under the law,”
Ms. Paiva Weed said before the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill on
Wednesday afternoon. After the committee vote, Ms. Paiva Weed said she did not
expect the Legislature to vote on a same-sex marriage bill next year, either.
Mr. Chafee told reporters on Wednesday that he would
probably sign the bill even though he thought the religious protections were
“We’re taking incremental steps forward, as other states
have,” he said. “We want to get on the path to full equality, and this is a
step on the path.”
The bill provides for hospital visitations, joint bank
accounts and property transfers, among other rights. If Mr. Chafee signs it,
Rhode Island will become the fifth state with a civil unions law; Delaware,
Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey already allow civil unions for gay couples.
New York passed its same-sex marriage law last week, joining
the District of Columbia and five other states: Connecticut, Iowa,
Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. In Connecticut, New Hampshire and
Vermont, civil union laws were steppingstones to gay marriage laws. But gay
rights advocates increasingly say that civil unions are not an acceptable
“You’re never going to see us trumpet civil unions,” said
Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Marriage Equality Rhode Island, the group
that has led the push for same-sex marriage here. “We believe civil unions
establish a second-class citizenry.”
Some advocates expressed disappointment in Mr. Chafee for
not pushing harder for gay marriage. But they acknowledged that he was
handicapped as a new governor with no party affiliation and thus less clout
with the Democratic leaders of his Legislature than, say, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of
In an interview, Mr. Chafee said Rhode Island’s large
elderly and Catholic populations helped explain why same-sex marriage has not
gained traction. “The church has been very active in calling the Legislature,”
Christopher Plante, executive director of the Rhode Island
chapter of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex
marriage and civil unions, said the bill had “opened the door for the courts of
Rhode Island to redefine marriage without a vote of the people.”
“This is a disappointing and dangerous day,” Mr. Plante
Mr. Sullivan said his group had planned to remain neutral on
the bill but came out against it after the “draconian” religious protections
were added. Most civil union and gay marriage bills offer some religious
protections — allowing a minister not to perform a gay marriage ceremony if he
so chooses, for example — but the Rhode Island bill goes much further, Mr.
“We support common-sense exemptions,” he said. “But no
government should ever grant a religion or organization the autonomous
authority to operate outside the boundaries of the law.”
Timothy Williams contributed reporting from New York.
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