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Religious Tolerance logo

Same-sex marriage (SSM) & civil unions in Rhode Island

2011 to 2013: Opinion on civil unions. Out-of-state
marriages recognized in RI. Legislature vote on SSM in
2013? Bills introduced to the Legislature. Referendum?

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This topic is a continuation of a previous essay

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2011-JUL: Webmaster's opinion on the creation of civil unions:

Governor Lincoln Chafee (I) signed the civil unions bill into law," making Rhode Island the fifth state after Illinois, New Jersey, Delaware and Hawaii to recognize same-sex relationships with civil unions. He said that the law:

"... brings tangible rights and benefits to thousands of Rhode Islanders. ... [it] provides a foundation from which we will continue to fight for full marriage equality." 1

On this web site, we normally report the opinions of others and keep our own beliefs to ourselves. But I am making an exception in this case because it seems so obvious to me that Governor Chafee did the right thing by signing the civil union bill into law. Same sex couples will be able to register their relationships as civil unions. Although the state now recognizes such relationships as second class, at least it will give them many rights, protections and recognitions that they didn't have before. Civil Unions are a major advance. The votes did not exist in the Legislature to legalize same-sex marriage, so the decision was between civil unions, or no recognition of same-sex relationships at all.

Now that the bill has become law, then there are certain to be hundreds of cases of raw discrimination, expressions of hatred, really offensive examples of religious individuals and groups denigrating LGBT persons and couples. After some months, the system will be shown to be unworkable, as it has in other states. Individuals in loving, committed civil unions will be prohibited from making medical decisions for their partners. Parents will be refused permission to visit their children in hospitals. Partners will be refused medical insurance for their partners, etc. It will gradually become obvious that the only workable solution is to allow loving, committed couples to marry, as in other New England states, New York state, the District of Columbia, etc.

Meanwhile, the voters in Rhode Island and their legislators will observe that giving loving, committed same-sex couples the same state rights as married couples resulted in no negative impact on the families of loving, committed opposite-sex married couples. It merely increased the overall level of protection security for Rhode Island couples and their children.

While waiting for passage of a same-sex marriage law, those same-sex couples who enter into civil unions will at least be able to enjoy the protections of a few hundred state laws that they would otherwise not have been able to receive. They will have to weigh this option against the state having continued to recognize their relationships as nonexistent, not worthy of marriage or of any of its rights.

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2012-MAY-14: Gov. Chafee signed order to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages:

Back in 2007, the Attorney General at the time -- Patrick Lynch -- issued a legal opinion in which he stated his belief that Rhode Island would recognize all legal out-of-state same-sex marriages. However, the ruling was just an opinion; it was not binding on employers, health insurance companies, state agencies, etc. Some state agencies did not follow the AG's opinion.

On 2012-MAY-14, Governor Lincoln Chafee (I) signed an executive order that directs state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages that have been legally solemnized in other states. He regarded the order as "following through" on Lynch's earlier legal opinion. According to the Huffington Post:

"The executive order is expected to have many real-world implications. Same-sex spouses of state employees and anyone covered by an insurance company regulated in Rhode Island will be entitled to health and life insurance benefits, gay rights advocates say. Both partners in a same-sex [married] couple will be able to list their names as parents on a child's birth certificate. ... same-sex [married] couples will be entitled to sales tax exemptions on the transfer of property including vehicles." 8

In signing this executive order, Governor Chafee was following Article IV, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution. This is the "Full Faith and Credit Clause." According to The Free Dictionary, this clause:

"... provides that the various states must recognize legislative acts, public records, and judicial decisions of the other states within the United States. It states that "Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. ..."

Although the implications of this clause for same-sex marriages has never been tested in the courts to our knowledge, some constitutional experts believe that this clause requires that marriages legally solemnized in one state must be recognized in the other states.

Since all of the other New England states already allow loving, committed same-sex couples to marry, a couple now need only take a short automobile ride into an adjacent state, marry there, and return to Rhode Island where they would become recognized as a married couple with all of the state rights, benefits, and protections that opposite-sex couples have automatically enjoyed for themselves and their children. For example, a couple in Providence RI could eat lunch, travel to Fall River MA via Interstate 195 -- a distance of about 18 miles (28km) -- taking less than a half hour -- marry there, and return as a married couple to Rhode Island in plenty of time for an afternoon wedding reception. Such a trip does not represent a major inconvenience.

Marriage out of state is a very attractive option to same-sex couples in Rhode Island. If they just entered a civil union they would end up with a status that many religious groups and religiously affiliated groups would not recognize. Also, to many same-sex couples, saying that they are married is the most important right of all. Probably the vast majority of such couples do leave the state to get married. During the first year that civil unions were available, only 68 couples obtained civil union licenses. 10

Looking at the situation from the standpoint of inconveniencing same-sex couples, it doesn't make much sense to invest the massive amount of effort required to pass legislation legalizing SSM in Rhode Island when couples can simply take a short trip to the next state and get married there. However, there is a certain elegance in allowing couples to marry in their own state. Besides, as Rhode Island goes through the gut-wrenching horror involved in getting battling legislators to agree on a SSM bill, the process will publicize the concept of same-sex marriage to the entire public, so that there would be no doubt that future same-sex couples marrying in the state would be truly married and must receive all of the benefits and status of marriage. Same-sex couples would no longer be considered second-class citizens. They could go down to the local city hall and pick up a marriage license just like any opposite-sex couple. An additional factor is that once SSM is legalized in a state, it would probably be legalized forever. Experiencing the pain and conflict need only be done once.

Christopher C. Plante is the regional coordinator for the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). This group's sole mandate is to prevent any same-sex couples from marrying anywhere in the U.S. He issued a statement expressing his deep concern for Governor Chafee's executive order. It says, in part:

"To issue an executive order recognizing same-sex marriage flies in the face of the clearly expressed actions of the legislature and the people."

In reality, at the time that Plante issued that statement there had been at least six public opinion polls on the topic of same-sex marriage (SSM). All indicate that a majority of Rhode Island adults are in favor of SSM by a margin of from 9 to 29 percentage points. Four months after his statement an additional survey showed that 56% of adults favored SSM while only 36% were opposed, for a margin of 20 percentage points. The public is definitely in favor of SSM. Also, the only "clearly expressed actions of the legislature" was a vote by the House Judiciary Committee more than a decade earlier which rejected a bill to legalize SSM. This was at a time when the American population strongly opposed SSM. Neither the Rhode Island House nor Senate ever voted on the topic prior to the executive order.

Ray Sullivan is campaign director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) -- a group that promotes marriage equality. He said that the executive order was "significant" and:

"bold. ... It's important because all families deserve equal protection and recognition under the law. Gov. Chafee, by doing this today, is affirming that idea."

Chafee described the executive order as an important step, but he will continue to promote same-sex marriage for the state. He said:

"We're overdue, way overdue." 8

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2012-DEC-17: The legislature may vote on SSM in 2013:

From early 2011-JUL when the civil unions law was signed into law, to the end of that year, there was no further legislative activity on same-sex relationships.

During 2012, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, (D-Newport) had prevented a SSM bill from being heard in the Senate. She remains personally opposed to marriage equality today. However she expects that the issue will be taken up in the future by the Senate Judiciary Committee if the House first advances a bill.

House Speaker Gordon Fox, (D-Providence) who is openly gay, planned to call an early vote on marriage equality legislation. Passing the bill is one of his top priorities.

Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), is the lead organization in the fight marriage equality in Rhode Island. 2 Its Campaign Director, Ray Sullivan, issued a statement on 2012-DEC-17:

“We are both excited and grateful that the Senate President has decided to schedule a Judiciary Committee vote on marriage equality in 2013, following the House’s expected passage of this historic civil rights legislation. We will continue to actively reach out to legislators on both sides of the aisle and grow our broad coalition of supporters in the House and Senate. Today’s news is another positive step in the right direction, but we won’t stop until the work of winning equal rights and recognition under the law for all loving, committed couples is complete, with legislation signed into law by Governor Chafee.“ 3

Democrats control both the House and Senate. Governor Chafee (D) supports SSM and is anxious to sign a bill enabling marriage equality. 4

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2013-JAN-04: SSM bills introduced to both the House and Senate:

State Rep. Arthur Handy (D), the bill’s main sponsor in the House, introduced the marriage equality bill. He is confident that it will pass this time. Passage is essentially assured in the House because more than 40 members of the 75-member body -- a majority -- have signed up as co-sponsors! He issued a statement saying:

"We are long overdue. Rhode Island, the colony founded on the principle of personal liberty, is now the only New England state that doesn’t allow same-gender couples equal marriage. Rhode Islanders recognize that same-gender couples deserve the rights and responsibilities that other couples already enjoy, and support has been getting wider every year"

House speaker Gordon Fox (D) who is openly gay, said that he hopes for a hearing by the House Judiciary Committee in the next two weeks, and wants a vote conducted by the end of January.

Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D) who is openly lesbian, introduced the Senate version of the same bill. It has 11 sponsors among the 38 senators. 5

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2013-JAN-11: Proposal for a voter referendum:

In addition to the two bills already introduced to the Legislature, State Senator Frank Ciccone (D) has indicated that he plans to introduce a separate bill this year that would present the legalization of same-sex marriage in a referendum for the Rhode Island voters to decide.

Governor Lincoln Chafee (I) said on JAN-10 that he would veto such a bill. Presumably Chafee feels that the Legislature should make the decision, not the general public. Many liberals and civil rights advocates feel that, on principle, civil rights should never be decided by the ballot. 6 This leaves minorities at risk to the tyranny of the majority.

Still, whenever SSM has been legalized, it has always happened as the result of a majority vote by some group: in a majority decision by voters in a referendum, by judges in a court, or by legislators in a legislature.

On JAN-13, Christopher Plante, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage -- Rhode Island, whose main mandate is to prevent marriage equality in every state, said that Governor Chafee couldn't veto a referendum. Plante said:

"The governor does not have any power to veto a referendum that would be a constitutional amendment."

This is certainly a true statement. Chapter IX, Section 14 of the state Construction gives the governor the authority to veto any legislation; it also specifically excludes vetoes of constitutional amendments. However, Ciccone's proposed referendum, as originally planned, would not be a constitutional amendment. Thus Governor Chafee could veto it.

Recognizing this, Senator Ciccone subsequently changed the nature of the referendum so that it would an amendment to write discrimination against lesbians, gays and bisexuals into the constitution. Thus, it could not be vetoed by the Governor.

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Discussion of this topic continues in the next essay ...

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Rhode Island Gay Marriage Backers Vow To Return Next Year," On Top Magazine. 2012-JUL-2001, at:
  2. Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) at:
  3. Ray Sullivan, "Statement from MERI on Senate Committee plans to vote on marriage equality," MERI, 2012-DEC-17. at:
  4. "RI Senate president expects same-sex marriage vote," Associated Press, 2012-DEC-17, at:
  5. "Rhode Island lawmakers introduce marriage bills in House and Senate," San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, 2013-JAN-04, at:
  6. Randal Edgar, "R.I. religious leaders react to Chafee's likely veto of gay-marriage referendum bill," Providence Journal, 2013-JAN-11, at:
  7. "Christopher Plante says Rhode Island's governor can't veto proposal for constitutional amendment on same-sex marriage," PolitiFact, 2013-JAN-13, at:
  8. Erika Niedowski, "Lincoln Chafee, Rhode Island Governor, Declares State Will Recognize Out-Of-State Gay Marriages," Huffington Post, 2012-MAY-14, at:
  9. "Full Faith and Credit Clause," The Free Dictionary, at:
  10. David Klepper, "Rhode Island House easily passes gay marriage bill," Associated Press, 2013-JAN-25, at:

Copyright © 2011 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2011-JUN-30
Latest update: 2013-JAN-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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