The Rhode Island Senate approved a controversial civil unions bill yesterday in a vote of 21 to 16.
On a vote of 21 to 16, the Senate approved the proposal sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Peter Petrarca that grants legal rights to same-sex partners “without the historical and religious meaning associated with the word marriage,” a statement from the Rhode Island General Assembly said.
“I am very proud of my colleagues in the General Assembly for recognizing that this is the right piece of legislation at the right time,” said Petrarca, who supports same-sex marriage.
“We have made great progress in our goal of providing increased rights, benefits and protections for gay and lesbian couples,” he added. “This bill is a step forward to ensuring equality and improving their quality of life.”
The bill has been sent to Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent, Senate spokesman Greg Pare told Reuters. A Chafee spokesman said the governor is expected to sign the bill.
The bill, already passed by the House in May, has been called fatally flawed by LGBT rights supporters because it contains a House amendment that would allow religious organizations not only the freedom to say they will not honor those partnerships, but also the potential for religious-affiliated schools, hospitals and cemeteries to entirely disregard the legal standing of a civil union, leaving same-sex couples bitterly vulnerable and without the coverage the civil unions law was supposed to provide.
For instance, a civil partner may be denied decision making rights should their partner be taken to a religious-affiliated hospital where the couple’s union is not recognized.
This is why LGBT rights groups such as Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) are urging Governor Chafee to veto the bill.
“We are extremely disappointed that the Senate brazenly ignored the commonsense objections raised by equality and civil rights leaders here and across the country. This civil union bill contains dangerous and discriminatory language that, without question, will cause significant harm to countless gay and lesbian couples in loving, committed relationships, and we will continue to fight it through whatever means are necessary. Furthermore, we renew our request that the governor veto this hurtful and ill conceived bill. To not do so would be a slap in the face to the gay and lesbian community, and every Rhode Islander who cares about equal rights and protections for all our state’s citizens.”
Gov. Chafee told reporters he thought the religious exemptions were overly broad but he would probably sign the bill anyway, marking this up as incremental progress toward a final goal. However, senators reportedly commented yesterday that it is unlikely the Rhode Island Legislature would take up the matter, or a marriage equality bill, next year.
Ironically, perhaps the most salient comment on Wednesday came from Christopher Plante, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Marriage. In remarks typical of his organization he told The New York Times the bill had “opened the door for the courts of Rhode Island to redefine marriage without a vote of the people,” and added, “This is a disappointing and dangerous day.”
Mr. Plante’s words on court intervention seem near prophetic, though perhaps not in the way he had intended.
It is hard to imagine LGBT rights groups will allow such a broadly second-class civil unions law to go unchallenged in the courts when it harbors such potential of harming same-sex couples and illustrates so boldly, and perhaps callously, the true inequality of such laws.
Such legal action could be bolstered by a new case against New Jersey’s civil unions law where 7 same-sex couples are arguing that, even without Rhode Island’s unprecedented religious exemptions, New Jersey’s civil unions law has failed to deliver on its promise of equality.
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