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

2011: Legislature passes civil union bill. Right
of religious groups to discriminate protected.

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This topic is a continuation of a previous essay

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HB 6103 passed by the House; comments by Representatives:

The bill -- as amended with the carve-out to protect religious groups who wish to discriminate against and denigrate the relationships of loving, committed same-sex couples -- was passed by the House on MAY-19 with a vote of 62 to 11. 1

Comments on the bill:

  • David Olsen, treasurer for the City of Warwick, had married Leonard Flood in the fall of 2010. Olson viewed the passage of the bill as a victory. He said: "Marriage equality is our number-one priority, but we’ll take the civil unions bill. What I would be disappointed in is if nothing passed." 2

  • Randal Edgar, reporter for the Providence Journal, wrote:

    "The civil-unions bill — opposed by hundreds who came out to testify last week and thousands, according to one lawmaker’s count, who signed petitions — did indeed pass in the House, with a vote that cut across party lines, even as it left lawmakers at odds over where the issue goes from here and what people in Rhode Island really want.

    Supporters called the vote a historic victory, one that provides important rights to same-sex couples despite falling short of full marriage equality. " 2

  • Rep. Peter Petrarca (D, Lincoln etc.) who sponsored the bill said:

    "I am very proud of my colleagues in the General Assembly for recognizing that this is the right piece of legislation at the right time. We have made great progress in our goal of 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." 3

  • Rep. Frank Ferri, (D-Warwick), who is openly gay and is a long-time champion of SSM, said:

    "I believe that it is a step forward. There are many couples that need these rights and, today, they know now when they go to the hospital, when they go to a nursing home, their property is protected, they have rights that they didn’t have — as soon as the Senate passes it and the governor signs it. ... We’re creating a second-class citizenship, but this doesn’t end the fight." 2

Everyone seems to accept that the civil union bill would be only the first step towards attempts to eventually legalize same-sex marriage (SSM). However, major opposition mounted within the LGBT community against the bill because it would codify second-class citizenship for same-sex couples, unless full marital equality is reached in the future.

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2011-JUN-02: Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearing on civil unions:

Dozens of individuals testified. Some opposed the bill on religious grounds, because it would grant loving committed same-sex couples rights previously reserved only for opposite-sex couples. They were also concerned because it would probably be the first step leading to marriage equality. Others testified against the bill because the bill would not protect same-sex couples from religiously-inspired discrimination.

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2011-JUN-29: Senate Committee passes civil union bill:

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7 to 4 to recommend that the Senate pass the House version of the civil unions bill unchanged.

Senator M. Teresa Paiva Weed (D), is the state Senate president. She opposes same-sex marriage but voted for the civil union bill, calling it "a compromise" and "a vote for equality." She issued a statement saying:

"When this committee takes this vote today it will be the first step toward the Senate providing civil unions in this state. From hospital visitation rights, medical decision making powers, equal state tax treatment, we have moved one step in the right direction to ensuring that individuals receive equal rights and protections under the law." 4

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2011-JUN-29: The full Senate passes the civil union bill:

The Senate voted 21 to 16 (57%) to pass the bill. This confirmed House Speaker Gordon D. Fox earlier assessment. If the Senate could only manage 57% support for a civil union bill, there would have been essentially no possibility that the Senate would have passed a SSM bill in 2011.

Governor Lincoln D. Chafee (I) said that he would sign the bill if it is passed by the Senate. He said:

"I understand the advocates' reluctance to sign on to it, but we're making incremental changes and that's what other states have done. New York, Vermont, they're making incremental changes that ultimately get to full gay marriage equality. 4

He speculated that large elderly and Catholic populations in Rhode Island contributed to the reason why SSM has not gained traction as it has in the remaining New England states, in New York state, etc. He commented: "The church has been very active in calling the Legislature."

All SSM national and state public opinion polls have shown that support for same-sex marriage is very high among young adults, high among middle-aged persons, and much lower among the elderly. Thus, a large elderly population would certainly reduce overall support for SSM. However, a recent poll in New York state showed slightly higher support among Roman Catholic laity than among the general adult population. It also found that there is higher support among Catholics than among any other identified religious group. (The difference is not sufficient to be statistically significant, however.) So, perhaps the large Catholic population in Rhode Island does not necessarily decrease SSM support.

Abby Goodnough, reporter for the New York Times wrote:

"Gay rights advocates say the bill is unacceptable because it allows religious organizations not to recognize the [civil] unions. For example, they say, a Catholic hospital could choose not to allow a lesbian to make medical decisions on behalf of her partner, and a Catholic university could deny family medical leave to gay employees."

" 'It's a permission slip to ignore legal obligations,' said Karen L. Loewy, a lawyer at Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, (GLAD).

"Some opponents of same-sex marriage, including the Roman Catholic Church, are also against the civil unions bill. But Ms. Paiva Weed said she saw it as a worthy compromise." 5

Ray Sullivan is the campaign director for Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), the most active group promoting SSM in the state. They had planned to remain neutral on the civil unions bill, but changed their mind and opposed it when they saw the extensive privileges that the bill would extend to religious groups that wanted to discriminate against LGBTs. They described the privileges as "draconian." He said:

"You’re never going to see us trumpet civil unions. We believe civil unions establish a second-class citizenry. ... We support common-sense exemptions. But no government should ever grant a religion or organization the autonomous authority to operate outside the boundaries of the [human rights] law." 5

The bill remained unchanged from the version earlier passed by the General Assembly. It retains the carve-out clause that offers religious entities unlimited freedom to discriminate. For example, a Roman Catholic hospital could deny permission for the civil unionized spouse to visit their hospitalized spouse. The hospital could refuse the spouse any involvement in health care decisions. A Catholic university might be able to deny medical coverage to the spouses of gay employees who are in a civil union.

The Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Marriage -- the main national group opposing all government recognition of same-sex relationships -- is also totally opposed to the civil union bill. The believe that same-sex civil unions threaten the concept of one man-one woman marriage. They also feel that the carve-out clause doesn't go far enough. They would prefer that it give businesses and individuals -- like wedding photographers, caterers, owners of non-religious halls, marriage counseling groups, city clerks, etc. -- the right to discriminate. With the bill in its current form, there is a possibility that these businesses and individuals might be prosecuted under human rights legislation if they refuse to perform services for a LGBT person or a same-sex couple that they offer to the general public.

Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Freedom to Marry and the American Civil Liberties Union, are calling on Governor Chafee to veto the bill. They wrote a two-page letter to the governor stating that the bill was "onerous and discriminatory:"

"[It] ... represents a huge step backward from Rhode Island’s longstanding nondiscrimination commitments ... [and provides] individuals and institutions a free-floating license to discriminate against a whole class of people, in defiance of general law.”

"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’s spouse’s right to be by his spouse’s side and make medical decisions for him [sic]." 6

In a Providence Journal article, readers were invited to post their opinions. 7 Three postings that offered a range of views were:

  • Glen Danzig wrote: "Civil Union's are B.S. - This is no different than drinking fountains for 'coloreds.' The fact that RI can't get their act together and pass gay marriage is really embarrassing. What backwards hillbilly nonsense. I like to think of our state as being progressive and open minded. I guess the bigotry runs deeper than I thought. Sad."

  • "Bizarroworld" wrote: "I am so tired of MERI and groups that claim to speak for the LGBT community who have become so blinded by their ideological warfare that they cannot even see that this is a crucial incremental step that will give these couples the rights that they deserve until full marriage equality takes effect. The fact they are fighting against a positive step tooth-and-nail shows just how much they have lost their way. Please, have some common sense and common decency. To demand that the governor veto this bill is absolutely ludicrous and contrary to the very people they claim to be sticking up for. They're not. This bill came very close to not even passing thanks to their foolish interference. Now they want to destroy the next best thing. Go away, MERI. You have become a hostile enemy to the very cause you claim to champion. Take a minute to calm down and think about the harm that you are causing with your all or nothing approach. Learn to compromise. If you did so the first time, we probably would have full marriage equality [by now]. Stop doing NOM's work for them.

  • "Citizen Critic" wrote: "A Civil Union is second class citizenship. Why are we making gays sit at the back of the bus?"

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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. Zach Howard, "Rhode Island approves gay marriage [sic]," Reuters, 2011-JUN-30, at:
  2. Thomas J. Tobin, untitled, Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, 2011-MAY-18, at:
  3. Randal Edgar, "Bishop Tobin urges lawmakers to reject civil unions bill," Providence Journal news blog, 2011-MAY-18. at:
  4. Randal Edgar, "Senate passes civil unions bill by 21 to 16 vote," news blog, Providence Journal, 2011-JUN-29, at:
  5. Abby Goodnough, "Rhode Island Lawmakers Approve Civil Unions," New York Times, 2011-JUN-29, at:
  6. "Rhode Island Senate passes civil union bill 21-16," Towleroad, 2011-JUN-29, at:
  7. Randal Edgar, "Gay advocates seek veto of civil-union bill," Providence Journal, 2011-JUN-29, at:

Copyright 2011 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2011-MAY
Latest update: 2013-JAN-06
Author: B.A. Robinson

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