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

2011-MAY: House debates civil union bill.
Many objections raised.

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  • It is legitimate and necessary to ask oneself if this is not perhaps part of a new ideology of evil, perhaps more insidious and hidden, which attempts to pit human rights against the family and against man." Pope John Paul II, referring to abortion access and rights for loving, committed same-sex couples. 1

  • A loving man and woman in a committed relationship can marry. Dogs, no matter what their relationship, are not allowed to marry. How should society treat gays and lesbians in committed relationships? As dogs or as humans?" Anonymous posting to an Internet mailing list.

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Summary to date:

During the spring of 2011, there was insufficient support in the General Assembly to pass a law to extend marriage to include loving, committed same-sex couples. Instead, the House debated a civil union bill -- House Bill 6103 -- that would give same-sex couples the state rights are are automatically given to opposite-sex couples when they marry. After an an amendment was added to protect religious institutions and their affiliates from prosecution under human rights laws, the House passed the bill.

The amended bill was later approved without further amendment by a Senate committee and finally by the full Senate. It was later signed into law by Governor Lincoln D. Chafee (I). 2,3

The bill holds secular groups and institutions to a high standard with respect to their treatment of same-sex couples in civil unions. Religious institutions, their hospitals, cemeteries, schools, universities, etc. would be given the freedom to actively discriminate and denigrate couples in civil unions. They need not acknowledge the existence of same-sex unions and are free to deprive them of equal rights with impunity.

Same-sex couples became formally recognized by the state as second-class citizens, vulnerable to any discrimination that faith groups and their related businesses want to dish out. Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) -- the main group promoting marriage equality in the state, -- the American Civil Liberties Union, and other LGBT human rights groups regard the bill as so offensive and demeaning that they have asked Governor Chafee to not sign it into law. Meanwhile, some LGBT individuals would prefer the bill to become law because it would guarantee them many rights, privileges, and protections as long as they stay away from religious institutions and their affiliated organizations.

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2011-MAY-19: Civil union bill introduced into the General Assembly:

In the Spring of 2011, Gordon D. Fox (D), speaker of the Democratically controlled House, determined that there were insufficient votes at the time to pass a same-sex marriage (SSM) bill. He said:

"I am the Speaker of the House and I am an openly gay man. This is very emotional for me. But as speaker, I understand counting votes and what I can deliver for all of us. And I believe I am delivering rights to us today and it’s not killing the cause. ... Passage of the civil unions bill that I will be supporting will grant same-sex couples all state rights guaranteed to married couples in Rhode Island ... a significant accomplishment in helping to ensure equality to all Rhode Islanders." 4

Rep. Peter Petrarca (D, Lincoln etc.), who supports SSM, sponsored the civil union bill -- House Bill 6103 -- to grant legal rights to same-sex couples. It lacks what is perhaps the most important right sought by same-sex couples: the right to call their union a marriage. According to a statement by the General Assembly: civil unions would be "... without the historical and religious meaning associated with the word marriage." 5

Rep. Petrarca's press release states:

"The new legislation defines civil unions as 'a legal union between two individuals of the same sex' and gives people certified in such a union 'all the [state] rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities' as those of people who are married."

" 'While my bill does not legalize same-sex marriage in the state of Rhode Island, it represents a wave of change and progress in granting same-sex couples equal access to those state rights that married couples hold,' said Representative Petrarca, who supports same-sex marriage. 'By providing increased rights, benefits and protections for gay and lesbian couples, this bill is a step forward to ensuring equality and improving their quality of life'."

"Representative Petrarca’s bill, which is cosponsored by Speaker of the House Gordon D. Fox, Rep. J. Patrick O’Neill (D-Dist. 59, Pawtucket), Rep. Elaine A. Coderre (D-Dist. 60, Pawtucket), and Rep. Robert A. Watson (R-Dist. 30, East Greenwich, West Greenwich), has been referred to the House Committee on Judiciary for consideration." 6

Having a bill cosponsored by a Republican that grants LGBT individuals any rights at all is an extremely rare occurrence.

The bill was passed by the House Judiciary Committee. The vote was 9 to 3 in favor. 7

On 2011-MAY-18, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence called on House representatives to reject the bill. He wrote:

"I encourage members of the General Assembly to vote against the civil unions legislation currently being considered. It is an unpopular and last minute attempt at a compromise that satisfies no one and accomplishes little.

"The civil unions legislation itself is objectionable since it serves as a gateway to same-sex marriage, thus guaranteeing that this divisive debate will continue in our State well into the future.

"The civil unions legislation under consideration has no protection for freedom of conscience or religious practice for individuals or institutions who oppose this challenge to traditional moral values.

"Further, it is important to note that the legislation itself is discriminatory since it provides certain legal rights only to those in same-sex relationships that mimic marriage while ignoring the needs of many other Rhode Islanders. The Diocese of Providence urges the consideration of 'reciprocal benefits legislation' that will be helpful to Rhode Islanders without reference to marriage and without compromising the traditional understanding of marriage and family in our society." 7

Missing from Bishop Tobin's statement was any acknowledgment that the bill would bring needed recognitions, protections, and support to loving committed same-sex couples and their children.

The article in the Providence Journal's news blog about Bishop Tobin's statement received 55 comments from readers; almost all were overwhelmingly negative -- some viciously so. 8

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Objections to HB 6103 as proposed in the House:

The bill was met with a great deal of opposition, Various groups unsuccessfully attempted to have the bill defeated or radically changed through amendments.

  • The bill was written to make civil unions available to loving, committed same-sex couples, while reserving marriage for opposite-sex couples. This is a "separate but equal" concept. Past examples of this approach, as in the operation of public schools separated by race, have definitely been separate but have never resulted in a fair and equal outcome. One problem is that while everyone knows what a marriage is, not that many people are aware of the scope and meaning of a civil union. Partners in civil unions in various states have often had to fight with hospital employees for the right to visit a family member in the hospital or to make medical decisions for incapacitated partners. Access to health care, pension and other plans that were designed for married couples were often refused to couples in civil unions. Some individuals and groups objected to the state writing legislation that established second-class citizenship for same-sex couples who were not considered worthy of marriage. In practice, civil unions or domestic partnershops have never worked out well in practice, either in Rhode Island or in any of the other states where they have been tried.

  • Others objected to the government giving any recognition at all to loving, committed same-sex relationships. They wanted the state to continue consider such couples as "legal strangers" to each other -- as mere roommates, without protections for themselves and their children. Their objections were often based on two beliefs concerning the nature of sexual orientation:
    • That a person chooses to become a gay or lesbian.

    • That through reparative therapy or the efforts of a transformational ministry, a gay or lesbian can be converted to heterosexuality.

Both of these beliefs have been rejected by all of the professional psychiatric, psychological, social worker associations, with the exception of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). In spite of that, they are widely believed by religious and social conservatives. Many reason that if the state creates civil unions as an equivalent-to-marriage state for same-sex couples then more people will choose to become gay or lesbian and fewer will try to convert to heterosexuality. Since conservatives often believe that persons who engage in sexual activity with others of the same gender, they will be relegated to Hell after death.

It was generally acknowledged that there were not sufficient votes in the Senate or House during 2011 to redefine marriage to include all loving committed couples, both same-sex and opposite-sex. And so a civil union bill was launched. Most people realized that this would be a temporary fix -- a stop-gap measure until sufficient votes became available to legalize same-sex marriages (SSM). In fact a new bill to create SSMs was launched in 2013-JAN, about a year and a half later.

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Discussion of this topic continues ...

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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. Philip Pullella, "Gay marriage, abortion new forms of evil: Pope," The Toronto Star, 2005-FEB-23, Page A14.
  2. Randal Edgar, "Gay advocates seek veto of civil-union bill," Providence Journal, 2011-JUN-29, at:
  3. Abby Goodnough, "In compromise, R.I. approves civil unions for same-sex couple," Boston Globe, 2011-JUN-30, at:
  4. Katherine Gregg, et al., "RI Speaker: Gay marriage off the table this year in R.I.," Rhode Island News, 2011-APR-28, at:
  5. Zach Howard, "Rhode Island approves gay marriage [sic]," Reuters, 2011-JUN-30, at:
  6. "Press Releases: 'Rep. Petrarca introduces bill to recognize civil unions'," Rhode Island government, 2011-MAY-04, at:
  7. Thomas J. Tobin, untitled, Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, 2011-MAY-18, at:
  8. Randal Edgar, "Bishop Tobin urges lawmakers to reject civil unions bill," Providence Journal news blog, 2011-MAY-18. at:

Copyright 2011 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2011-JUN-30
Latest update: 2013-JAN-07
Author: B.A. Robinson

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