Rhode Island takes major step toward approving civil unions

PROVIDENCE Wed Jun 29, 2011 7:09pm EDT

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PROVIDENCE (Reuters) - Rhode Island took a significant step toward approving same sex civil unions on Wednesday, with the bill expected to be passed later in the evening.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday afternoon voted 7-4 to approve the controversial civil unions proposal and the full Senate was expected to approve the bill sometime after 8 p.m., Senate spokesman Greg Pare told Reuters.

Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent, was expected to sign the bill, which already passed Rhode Island's House in May, a Chafee spokesman said.

The decision for tiny Rhode Island comes a week after New York became the nation's most populous state to legalize gay marriage.

The proposal defines civil unions as a legal union between two individuals of the same sex, granting all the rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities to them that the state affords to people who are married.

Gay advocacy groups, such as Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), support some aspects of the civil unions bill but would prefer same-sex nuptials to be legalized in the state.

Some groups have asked legislative leaders to seek removal of a House amendment they say would let any religious entity -- including hospitals, cemeteries, and schools -- and its employees effectively ignore the legal standing of a civil union for any reason it chooses.

For example, a civil union spouse could be denied the ability to participate in a partner's emergency medical care if the hospital had a religious affiliation and decided not to recognize civil union partners.

If the amendment is not removed by the senate, MERI will ask Governor Chafee to veto the bill, MERI executive director Gene Dyszlewski said.

Opposed to the bill altogether is the National Organization for Marriage's Rhode Island chapter. The group says same-sex civil unions threaten the concept of one man-one woman marriage and the bill doesn't protect the religious liberties of businesses and individuals.

Rhode Island and Maine have not joined their four New England neighbors - Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut -- in legalizing same-sex nuptials. Same sex marriage is also now legal in Iowa, the District of Columbia and, most recently, New York.

Civil unions were approved in Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey.

Same sex marriage is banned in 39 states.

(Reporting by Zach Howard; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jerry Norton)

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