Rhode Island House Passes Civil Union Legislation to Bittersweet Reaction

On Thursday, the Rhode Island House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed (62-11) legislation that will allow gay and lesbian couples to enter into civil unions.  The legislation now moves to the Senate where it is expected to win broad support, and Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) has pledged to sign the bill if it reaches his desk.  If it becomes law, the proposal would allow gay and lesbian couples to obtain civil unions, effectively granting them all of the state protections currently only available to married couples under Rhode Island law.

Rep. Frank Ferri (D-Warwick), who is openly gay and supported the legislation, said the House endorsement of civil unions is bittersweet.

"Today I'm being asked to choose between equality and rights," he said.  There's no doubt in my mind that families like mine need these rights."

To clarify, civil unions would provide important protections, whereas the goal of proposed marriage equality legislation was to achieve equality for all of Rhode Island's loving and committed couples.

Outside the Rhode Island General Assembly, there is little support for civil unions from either side of the marriage equality debate.  Advocates for marriage equality maintain that civil unions treat loving and committed gay and lesbian couples as second-class citizens, while opponents see civil unions as a stepping stone to marriage equality.

Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) is the statewide advocacy organization spearheading marriage equality legislation.  Having been introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly every year since 1997, many observers anticipated that with a supportive House Speaker and governor, 2011 was to be the year that marriage equality was finally realized in the Ocean State.

On April 27, House Speaker Gordon Fox (D) said that marriage equality legislation had “no realistic chance” of passing the state’s General Assembly this year.

“This is the best we can do right now,” Fox said at the time.  “Full marriage will happen.  I’m born and bred in Rhode Island.  When I do get married it will be in my home state.”

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed's opposition was thought to be a key obstacle to passing marriage equality legislation from the outset of the legislative session.  After months of discussions with his colleagues, ultimately it was the anticipation of continued opposition in the Senate that prompted Fox to decide that he would not be moving forward with a House vote on marriage equality legislation this year.  He then shifted his support to passage of a civil union bill, legislation that would grant important legal protections to gay and lesbian couples in Rhode Island.

In the wake of Speaker Fox’s announcement last month, Rep. Art Handy, an original co-sponsor of the marriage equality legislation, announced that he would introduce an amendment to the civil unions legislation that would grant full marriage equality to the loving and committed gay and lesbian couples who want to take care of and be responsible for each other.  It was called the Handy amendment, but it was defeated yesterday on a procedural vote of 23-47.

Ray Sullivan, the campaign director for MERI, said Thursday that civil unions will never be a substitute for true marriage equality.

"We'll be back tomorrow and every day until all Rhode Islanders are recognized, protected and treated equally," he said.

Currently five states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont) and the District of Columbia legally allow marriage for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples who want to take care of and be responsible for each other.  Five states (California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington) provide loving and committed gay and lesbian couples with access to many of the state-level benefits and responsibilities of marriage, through either a civil union or a domestic partnership; three others (Illinois, Hawaii, and Delaware) are on the verge, which will mean that eight states legally recognize the relationships of loving and committed gay and lesbian couples, through either a civil union or a domestic partnership.

GLAAD has been on the ground in Providence, R.I., twice in recent months, training couples and individuals on how to speak in the media about the importance of marriage for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples.  We will continue to support the tireless efforts of our colleagues in Rhode Island, and we look forward to the day when all of Rhode Island’s loving and committed couples are treated equally.  Until that day comes, we urge the media to continue spotlighting the stories of those couples who are still not able to take care of and be responsible for the people they love most: each other.