The Rhode Island State Senate approved a bill today allowing civil unions for same-sex couples. The bill, which had previously passed in the state's House of Representatives, now must be signed by Governor Lincoln Chafee (right), an Independent who has championed marriage equality.
The civil unions bill passed despite advocacy from LGBT organizations that demanded full marriage equality, calling civil unions a decision to grant second-class status to same-sex couples.
Several LGBT organizations have come out against the Rhode Island civil union bill, which grants even more powerful exemptions for religious organizations. The bill allows religious organizations and their employees to completely disregard the civil union status of couples. This is distinct from the religious exemptions in New York's marriage equality bill, which state that religious institutions are not obligated to perform marriages between same-sex couples.
The primary organizations speaking out against the civil unions bill are Freedom to Marry and the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. They were two of the organizations that submitted a letter to Gov. Chafee last night. The letter, in part, reads:
This amendment could allow individuals, who are legally required to recognize everyone else's legal commitments, to opt out of doing so only for gay and lesbian people. In practical terms, this law could allow religiously affiliated hospitals to deny a civil union spouse's right to be by his spouse's side and make medical decisions for him, and could allow religiously affiliated agencies to deny an employee's right to leave in order to care for his civil union spouse under Rhode Island Family and Medical Leave. This langauge creates an even more vulnerable situation for those who most critically need the protections that the civil union bill attempts to provide - those couples with less financial means, who have the least control over where to access health care and who are most likely to need to avail themselves of religiously-affiliated social services.
We respectfully request that you renounce this provision of the law, and if it remains in the bill, we urge that you veto it. We understand and respect your desire to provide protections and security for Rhode Island's same-sex couples, but so long as this language remains, those protections are drastically undermined. Rather than multiplying the inadequacies of separate-and-unequal civil union approach, we urge you t veto this bill, and lead your state to enact full marriage, which is the tried-and-true status that fully honors and protects all loving and committed couples. We look forward to partnering with you to enact marriage legislation for Rhode Island in the very near future.
GLAD's Karen Loewy, the organization's senior staff attorney, explained further about the amendment. She said:
The Corvese amendment actually diminishes protections already available under Rhode Island law, and is seriously damaging to Rhode Island's gay and lesbian families. If it becomes law, there is trouble ahead for Rhode Island's same-sex couples.
Rhode Island would become the fifth state to allow civil unions. Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey already allow civil unions between same-sex couples. Earlier today, however, Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit to turn New Jersey's civil union law into full marriage equality.