The Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee is set to vote on a controversial civil unions bill Wednesday.
If voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, just days before the 2011 legislative session ends, the bill could face balloting by the full Senate as early as late Wednesday, Senate spokesman Greg Pare said.
Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent, was expected to sign the bill, which already passed the House in May.
The proposal defines civil unions as a legal union between two individuals of the same sex, granting all the rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities to them that the state affords to people who are married.
The vote, which comes almost a week after New York legalized marriage equality, is the subject of much debate and even has gay marriage advocates riled.
Marriage equality proponents argue that House legislators, including openly gay House Speaker Gordon Fox, caved to pressure far too quickly, abandoning a full marriage equality bill in favor of the civil unions measure without putting up a fight. Fox in particular argued that the compromise was necessary given Republican Senate Leader had gone on record against marriage equality. Fox said the bill was a pragmatic compromise and offered that some rights were better than none at all.
One aspect of the House version of the bill that even Fox would struggle to justify is an amendment to allow religious-affiliated institutions, such as hospitals, schools and cemeteries, to disregard the status of a legal civil union. Equality advocates say that if the bill cannot be stripped of this amendment it should then be scrapped altogether and have made it clear they would ask Rhode Island’s governor to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk with the amendment attached.
The bill includes restrictions allowing people to ignore a union if they work for a religious organization.
“In reality what it does is it allows private and religious organizations to pro-actively discriminate against a minority class of citizens,” said Ray Sullivan of Marriage Equality of Rhode Island. “If they can’t remove the language, then we are asking the governor to do the right thing and veto the bill.”
UPDATE: The bill passed out of senate committee to the senate floor and, in a blisteringly quick vote, passed. It now moves to Gov. Chaffee for his signature. LGBT rights groups aren’t celebrating though. Find out why here.
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