Governor signs Rhode Island civil union law, but pleases no one
Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee (I) signed a civil union bill into law on Saturday, July 2—but LGBT civil rights advocates are not happy with his decision to do so. And Chafee himself said the bill “fails to fully achieve” the goal of providing same-sex couples with equal rights.
The bill, passed by the state Senate June 29 and the House in May, states that it gives same-sex couples the same rights, benefits, and responsibilities as married opposite-sex couples. But LGBT groups say an amendment providing extensive exemptions on religious grounds “legalizes discrimination against the very status and protections it creates.”
Marriage Equality Rhode Island and several leading LGBT advocacy organizations sent a letter to Chafee June 28, asking him to veto the civil union legislation if it included the amendment. They said the amendment would allow religiously-affiliated “hospitals, day care centers, schools or cemeteries to openly and intentionally discriminate against civil union spouses.” Hospitals, they say, “could refuse to allow a spouse to visit their dying partner or make medical decisions in an emergency situation.”
Fourteen state representatives sent a similar letter to Chafee the day before.
Chafee, in a signing statement, called the bill “a step forward,” but added that it “fails to extend full marriage equality to all Rhode Islanders, a civil right that I strongly support and urged the general assembly to enact.” He added that he believes one of the bill’s religious exemptions is too broad.
The civil union bill has been a disappointment to many LGBT advocates from the start because a bill for full marriage equality was on the legislature’s agenda. It was dropped in April after it failed to gain enough support, even though Democrats hold large majorities in both chambers and Chafee, a long-time supporter of LGBT equality, said he would back it.
But one of the marriage equality bill’s sponsors, openly gay House Speaker Gordon Fox (D), announced in April that “there is no realistic chance for passage of the bill in the Senate,” where Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Newport) opposed it. Fox said he would not move forward with a vote in the House.
The Providence Journal newspaper also reported that Fox said he did not have the votes to pass the bill even in the House, where Democrats hold 65 seats to Republicans’ 10.
Fox instead sponsored the bill for civil unions, a decision that did not go over well with LGBT groups, even before the religious exemption amendment. Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) held a rally at the State House to protest Fox’s decision to drop the marriage equality bill. Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and other groups issued statements criticizing Fox’s decision and calling it “completely unacceptable.”
But the civil union bill went to the House floor on May 19, where Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence) introduced the amendment regarding religious exemptions.
The amendment exempts religious organizations, religiously affiliated charitable or educational organizations, and their employees, from solemnizing civil unions and from providing related services, facilities, or accommodations.
Religious exemptions were included in New York’s recently passed marriage equality bill, but the Rhode Island amendment goes further and exempts the organizations and individuals from treating civil unions as valid in any way, if to do so goes against their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Chafee called that language “a religious exemption of unparalleled and alarming scope” that “eviscerates the important rights that enacting a civil union law was meant to guarantee for same sex couples in the first place.”
At the same time, he said, the bill “brings tangible rights and benefits to thousands of Rhode Islanders” and “provides a foundation from which we will continue to fight for full marriage equality.”
Martha Holt, board chair of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, said in a statement that her organization is “remarkably disappointed” that the governor signed the bill, and hopes that he “will soon return” to his commitment to push for marriage equality.
Interestingly, even opponents of marriage equality oppose the civil union bill, albeit for different reasons. Chris Plante, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage chapter in Rhode Island, issued a statement, saying that civil unions were “a clear threat to the definition of marriage” and to religious liberties.
On June 29, the same day that the civil union bill passed the final legislative hurdle in Rhode Island, Lambda Legal and Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s leading LGBT political group, filed a lawsuit in New Jersey Superior Court on behalf of seven same-sex couples, claiming that the state’s existing civil union laws do not provide them with full equality.
Two other states—Connecticut and Vermont—also won marriage equality after their highest courts ruled that civil unions were insufficient in providing equal rights and benefits.