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Religious Tolerance logo

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

2013-JAN: Bill status. Corvese Amendment.
Unanimous passage in House Judiciary Committee.

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This topic is a continuation of a previous essay

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2013-JAN-15: Bill HB5015's status:

Rep. Arthur Handy (D) introduced the SSM bill to the House. Bills similar to this one had been introduced to the Rhode Island legislature every year since 1997. The year 2001 was the only time that it actually reached the House Judiciary Committee. It was rejected with only one representative -- Rep. David Cicilline (D) -- who is openly gay -- voting in favor of the bill in 2001.

That Committee was expected to hold a hearing on the latest version of the bill during the afternoon of JAN-15. It was expected to pass, since 9 of its 13 members are co-sponsoring the bill. It was delayed a week. The full House was expected to vote and pass the bill later in January. 1

The fate of the bill in the Senate is much less certain. Four of the Senate Judiciary Committee's ten members are cosponsoring the bill. 2

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2013-JAN-22: Bill HB5015 would legalize SSM, convert civil unions into civil marriages, and repeal the Corvese Amendment:

As currently written, bill HB5015 would enlarge the scope of marriage to include the union of any two qualifying persons whether of the same sex or opposite sex. It would automatically convert existing same-sex civil unions into civil marriages.

It would also repeal the discriminatory Corvese Amendment. This is a clause that was added to the civil unions bill back in 2011. It allowed a wide range of groups, businesses, and individuals to freely discriminate against same-sex couples wo were in civil unions. The amendment was justified on the basis of religious freedom. However, this was not religious freedom in the historical meaning of the term. That involves the freedom to hold different religious beliefs, to meet with fellow believers, to proselytize freely, etc. Rather it reflected the new meaning of religious freedom: the freedom of religious individuals and groups to denigrate and discriminate against minority groups with impunity. It allowed all religious institutions, as well as businesses and individuals who are connected in any way to a religious institution, to ignore the existence of a couple's civil union and the rights associated with it. They are allowed to treat the couple as "legal strangers" and consider their relationship as non-existent.

Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) opposed the Corvese Amendment in 2011. They described it as:

"... the most wide-sweeping, broad and discriminatory language that has ever been added to a same sex marriage or civil union bill anywhere in the country. Anti-equality activists, like the National Organization for Marriage, have desperately tried to sneak such language into bills in other states, without success. House Speaker Gordon Fox sanctioned the amendment going forward, and even voted in favor of its passage.

Fourteen legislators also opposed the amendment. They prepared an open letter explaining their concerns. 3 They wrote:

"With the addition of the Corvese amendment, the well-intended civil union bill has been irreparably undermined. This bill legalizes discrimination against the very status and protections it creates, and allows groups with even tenuous connections to religious denominations to ignore very specific laws as they relate to same sex couples. ..."

"Specifically, H6103, as amended, would allow any religiously connected entity to ignore the legal import of a civil union for any purpose. It would sanction a civil union spouse being denied the ability to make medical decisions for his or her spouse in a religiously-affiliated hospital or healthcare facility, despite having the legal authority to do so. This could be particularly calamitous in an emergency situation. ..."

"We agree that religious institutions should be guarded from having to alter their principles, faith or dogma and we support certain exemptions for faith groups to accomplish that goal. But religiously-affiliated groups should not be shielded from having to follow the law."

"If the true intent of this bill is to grant rights to those who have been denied them for far too long, then we cannot give any organization, religious or otherwise, the autonomous authority to single-out and discriminate against a minority class of citizens'." 3

It was widely believed at the time that without the Corvese Amendment, the civil unions bill would not pass. It was left in the bill, which was subsequently signed into law.

Poliglot commented in 2013:

"For instance, under the Corvese Amendment, a Catholic hospital could deny same-sex partners visitation rights, or universities with a religious affiliation could deny family or medical leave if a person's partner becomes ill." 2

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2013-JAN-22: Bill HB5015 unanimously passed by the House Judiciary Committee:

After over 300 people testified for and against the bill during the week of JAN-13. Rep. David Cicilline (D) is still on the House Judiciary Committee. He voted again in favor of the bill. This time he was joined by all the other members who approved the bill by a vote of 12 to 0. 4 The committee consists of 13 members: 12 Democrats and 1 Republican. For the first time in the history of Rhode Island, a same-sex marriage bill will now go to the House for a full vote.

Rep. Cicilline issued a statement:

"I applaud the action of the House Judiciary Committee.  Following President Obama's inaugural address that called for gay Americans to be treated equally under the law, I am pleased that the House Judiciary Committee has taken the first step towards enacting full marriage equality in our state.  This important effort has received the support of a growing number of Rhode Islanders from nearly every political background and religious tradition, and I believe it is time our state recognizes the dignity and value of relationships between committed and loving individuals of the same gender by enacting full marriage equality in Rhode Island." 5

Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, -- a group promoting marriage equality -- issued a statement:

"After hearing testimony from everyday Rhode Islanders -- gay and straight, friends, family and community leaders -- the committee resoundingly endorsed extending the unique protections and recognition of marriage to all loving, committed couples. This historic, affirmative vote moves us one step closer to finally making the Ocean State a place where all families are valued, respected and treated equally."

"We are grateful to Speaker Fox, his leadership team, Rep. Handy, and all our sponsors for their commitment to act swiftly on this important legislation and we look forward to having this bill debated by the full House. Momentum is clearly with us, but we’re not taking anything for granted and will double our efforts in the coming days to grow the broad and bipartisan coalition of supportive legislators in both chambers." 6

Gov. Chafee (D) issued a statement that praised the committee's vote. He describing it to be a:

"... significant step forward toward marriage equality. ... As I noted in my State of the State address last week, there are a number of reasons why we should bring marriage equality to Rhode Island this year. It's a civil rights issue, it is an issue of basic fairness, and it is an economic development issue. We are at an economic disadvantage with our neighboring states when we do not 'have the welcome mat out' for all those who want to work here and contribute to our economy." 5

Rhode Island is the only New England state that has not yet legalized SSMs.

The bill has been scheduled to be debated and voted upon in the House on Thursday, JAN-24. There are 75 members in the House of whom 42 are cosponsors of the bill. Its passage appears certain.

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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. "House of Representatives Will Hear Gay Marriage Bill Tuesday," Go Local, 2013-JAN-11, at:
  2. John Riley, "Rhode Island House committee passes gay-marriage bill," Poliglot, 2013-JAN-22, at:
  3. Dawn Euer, "Legislators oppose Corvese Amendment to Civil Union Bill," Marriage Equality Rhode Island, 2011-JUN-27, at:
  4. Video: "Gay marriage unanimously passes House Judiciary Committee," ABC-6, WLNE Providence RI, 2013-JAN-22, at:
  5. Randal Edgar, "Chafee praises vote by House Judiciary Committee on same-sex marriage," Providence Journal, 2013-JAN-22, at:
  6. Dee DeQuattro, "Gay marriage unanimously passes House Judiciary Committee," WLNE-TV, 2013-JAN-22, at:

Copyright © 2011 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2013-JAN-15
Latest update: 2013-JAN-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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