Adam Polaski

Rhode Island Senate Grants Civil Unions

Filed By Adam Polaski | June 29, 2011 8:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Freedom to Marry, GLAD, marriage equality, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island

LincolnChafee.jpegThe 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.

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I understand the very valid concerns put forth by people who believe that civil unions with these specific religious exemptions represent a very poor second to real marriage.

However, it should be kept in mind that one of the things that our "Fierce" "Advocate" did do was to have HHS issue rules that, in my understanding, keep hospitals, nursing homes, and the like from depriving partners, civil unionists (?), and spouses from being with the people who are most important to them. Assuming that such establishments want to continue getting Federal funds.

I do not believe that nothing is preferable to something, even if it is an inadequate something. For one thing, although I have not been following the law, it should help resolve the issue of what happens if people find the need to uncommit their committed relationships. There has already been the quandary of what happens when people who have been married in a different state seek divorce in Rhode Island.

I may be mistaken, but it was my understanding that hospitals that receive Medicare/Medicaid now must allow the same visitation privileges granted to opposite sex married couples, but there is still no guarantee that the other rights and responsibilities would be respected, even with all the proper paperwork in hand.

But what if you are in an emergency such as the recent tornadoes, for example, when legal documentation might literally be unavailable--what then? What about if you and your civil partner are in a car accident, your partner is unconscious, any documents you normally carry are left behind by the rescue workers and medical decisions need to be made for before the legal paperwork could be presented? What then?

Well, I don't really comprehend the fine points involved. I trust what the GLAD rep implies about unforeseen consequences. MERI is asking people to call Chafee's office to request that he veto the bill. I just called. I think we can get a better bill through. Chafee will be in office for three and a half more years. It looked like a civil marriage bill had a good chance earlier in the year. There has to be a better compromise than this.

I think it's interesting that the LGBT groups have asked the Governor to veto the legislation and hold out for marriage equality.

I know. I still don't understand the idea that "nothing continued into the indefinite future" is preferable to "1/2 of a loaf now, and working to get the rest of the loaf as soon as possible."

And frankly, having already spent a chunk of political capital on getting SOMETHING through, if Lincoln Chafee were to say that any form of equality is off of his agenda for the rest of his term, nobody could honestly blame him. If WE don't care, why should HE?

I'm actually not sure I feel about it. I'm also more inclined to be in the something is better than nothing" camp.

Although it relates primarily to Rhode Island, this is a general comment and question.

Many people have worked hard, extremely hard, hard to the point of exhaustion, in order to obtain the support of straight allies to promote equality and fairness in American life. For the most part, they have nothing to gain from supporting us other than knowledge that they are doing the right thing whereas they have little to lose by ignoring us and, in a number of cases, a lot to risk by going out on a limb which they know will make them unpopular with a number of their constituents.

For LGBT issues, of course, the key allies are straight, for other progressive issues (immigration, racial discrimination, people with disabilities, labor, etc.) the allies would be various, but the principles remain the same.

If people have put their careers on the line for us, with minimal apparent benefit to themselves, under what circumstances if any does it make sense to say, "Thanks for your willingness to sacrifice for us. But we've changed our mind about what really is a minimum acceptable deal, so we don't mind letting you hang out to dry for literally nothing"?