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R.I. Senate Passes Controversial Civil Unions Bill

R.I. Senate Passes Controversial Civil Unions Bill


The Rhode Island Senate approved a controversial civil unions bill yesterday in a vote of 21 to 16.

From Reuters:

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.

A statement on the MERI website reads:

“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.

Related Reading:

Rhode Island Senate Committee Takes Up Civil Unions Bill

R.I. House Committee Advances Controversial Civil Unions Bill

RI Civil Unions Bill Introduced, Gay Marriage Advocates Protest


Photo used under the Creative Commons Attribution License, with thanks to brainchildvn.

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11:55AM PDT on Jul 5, 2011

would you rather have an out-right ban on gay marriage? It's not great but it is a step in the right direction. EVERY step forward is a possitive step in the right direction. Everyone who believes in equality should keep pushing forward and be glad for every posssitive step toward that goal.

8:37AM PDT on Jul 1, 2011

I would have been much more satisfied with a NY-like bill with the their amendments satisfying religious groups. Do not allow continued selective discrimination. Especially if those choosing to discriminate are also able to obtain any state funding.

6:20AM PDT on Jul 1, 2011

Great news from R.I!!!

9:15AM PDT on Jun 30, 2011

and also, by the way, historically, marriage had absolutely nothing to do with the church.

9:03AM PDT on Jun 30, 2011

CourtneyB: did you read the part "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"
Religion permeates society in the United States and allowing discrimination based on religious belief is no better than for any other reason. It is a "start" but it is still basic discrimination.. Unfortunately there is NOT separation of state and church in the US and that is also why so many Republican led states are banning abortions....that is based on nothing more than a religious belief.

7:32AM PDT on Jun 30, 2011

I really can't argue the ammendment that doesn't force religions to recognize a legal union. It is definitely a huge step in the right direction. There has always been a separation of church and state, that's what this country was founded on. Marriage is one thing where that separation gets fuzzy and needs to be defined.

3:54AM PDT on Jun 30, 2011


3:49AM PDT on Jun 30, 2011

It's a start.

3:09AM PDT on Jun 30, 2011

Separate and unequal; what else is new? So much for Equal Justice Under Law - at least for the present in Rhode Island.

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