Rhode Island Legislature Approves Civil Unions; Equality Advocates Call on Gov. Chafee to Veto

On Wednesday, the Rhode Island Senate voted 21-16 to pass legislation legalizing civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. With the measure having passed the House of Representatives (62-11) on May 19, the civil union bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I).  Gov. Chafee has indicated he plans to sign the bill.  Meanwhile, advocates for equality continue to urge him to veto the bill, saying the measure would legalize discrimination in Rhode Island because of "overly broad and harmful religious exemption language."

The civil union bill is regarded by lawmakers as a compromise to previous efforts to pass marriage equality legislation in Rhode Island.  Openly gay House Speaker Gordon Fox shifted the legislative focus from marriage equality to civil unions on April 27, saying at the time that marriage equality had "no realistic chance" of passing the 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.”

Though the compromise civil union bill received broad support from legislators, including Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed (regarded by many as the chief obstacle to passing marriage equality legislation), the bill failed to earn any public support from advocates on 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.

Up until June 2, Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) was not vocally supportive or opposed to the civil union bill, but that changed upon review of an amendment that was added to the bill before it passed the House of Representatives.  Named after sponsor Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence), the Corvese Amendment contains what MERI calls "overly broad and harmful religious exemption language."  Specifically, the bill allows:

-That a civil union spouse be denied the ability to make medical decisions for his or her spouse in a religiously-affiliated hospital despite having the legal authority to do so;

-That an employee at a religious-affiliated organization could be denied Rhode Island Family and Medical Leave to care for his or her civil union spouse;

-That a religious cemetery could deny the right of a civil union spouse to determine the disposition of his or her deceased partner's remains;

-That a religiously-affiliated school could refuse to treat both parents of an enrolled student who was born into his or her parents' civil union as people legally authorized to direct the student's education.

MERI has said repeatedly that they do not oppose religious exemptions, and that the Handy Amendment contained language that actually strengthened protections for faith-based organizations.  On the other hand, the Corvese Amendment goes too far, according to MERI, and so the group asked the Senate to remove that language.  The Senate, however, passed the bill as is, and it now sits on the desk of Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who spoke of the need for marriage equality in Rhode Island during his inauguration earlier this year.

"Allowing this bill to become law would be a complete departure from Gov. Chafee's previous leadership on LGBT issues," said Karen Loewy, senior staff attorney for the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD).  "Civil unions are inherently unequal, but this bill compounds the harm to same-sex couples, going much further than any other state ever has in carving out a discriminatory exception with the Corvese Amendment.  It does not represent incremental progress, or progress of any kind.  Gov. Chafee needs to stay true to his commitment to equality and veto this bill."

GLAAD staff have spent time in Rhode Island over the past year, training couples on how to speak with the media about their stories of love and commitment.  We will continue to keep a close eye on the status and media coverage of relationship recognition in Rhode Island.  In the meantime, we urge the media to report on this subject in a fair, accurate and inclusive manner.