This past Saturday, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed into law a much debated bill that legalizes civil unions for lesbian and gay couples in the state. The legislation was approved by the Senate last Wednesday, more than a month after it passed through the House of Representatives. Advocates of marriage equality, including Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) and the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), spoke out against the measure, saying that it falls short of providing the same protections afforded to married couples. MERI is particularly troubled by the legislation’s “overly broad and harmful religious exemption language,” which is outlined in an amendment that was added to the bill before it passed the House of Representatives in May.
Rhode Island is the fifth state to allow civil unions for lesbian and gay couples, preceded by New Jersey, Illinois, Delaware, and Hawaii. Gov. Chafee, who has been a vocal supporter of marriage equality, said he signed the bill because it “brings tangible rights and benefits to thousands of Rhode Islanders. It also provides a foundation from which we will continue to fight for full marriage equality.” Yet like MERI and GLAD, he too has reservations about the religious exemptions the law provides for. Under these exemptions, several religiously affiliated institutions – including hospitals, cemeteries, schools and community centers – are given grounds to deny services to couples joined in a civil union. Nevertheless, Chafee signed the bill which went into effect later on Saturday.
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.