Rhode Island governor signs gay civil union law despite doubts

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island Sat Jul 2, 2011 5:38pm EDT

Newly elected Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee (C) speaks to the media between other Governors-elect Dan Malloy of Connecticut (L) and Peter Shumlin of Vermont outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, December 2, 2010, following their meeting at Blair House with U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Newly elected Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee (C) speaks to the media between other Governors-elect Dan Malloy of Connecticut (L) and Peter Shumlin of Vermont outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, December 2, 2010, following their meeting at Blair House with U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

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PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island (Reuters) - Rhode Island's governor on Saturday signed into law a controversial bill legalizing same sex civil unions, but said it does not go far enough toward legalizing gay marriage.

Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent who supports gay marriage, nonetheless signed the measure with the promise that it would move Rhode Island closer to the ultimate goal of legalizing gay marriage.

Chafee had urged the General Assembly to consider same-sex marriage this legislative session. But some legislators felt it would be doomed in a state populated by many elderly and Catholic voters, and a civil unions bill was passed instead.

Rhode Island is the second state to act on gay unions just before state legislatures adjourned for the summer. New York lawmakers a week ago voted to legalize gay marriage, making it the most populous state to allow gay nuptials.

Chafee said he signed the civil unions bill with "reservations" because it "brings tangible rights and benefits to thousands of Rhode Islanders. It also provides a foundation from which we will continue to fight for full marriage equality."

He had two major criticisms of the civil union bill: that it failed to provide full marriage equality to same-sex couples and that it allowed religious entities to choose to not recognize civil unions.

Describing the proposal that passed the tiny New England state's Senate this week as "a step forward," he said it did not fully achieve its goals of giving same gender pairs the same rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities as married couples.

The new law includes a section that says no religious organization -- including some hospitals, cemeteries, schools and community centers -- or its employees may be required to treat as valid any civil union, providing a religious exemption "of unparalleled and alarming scope," Chafee said in a statement.

As a result, a civil union spouse could be denied the right to make medical decisions for his or her partner, access to health insurance benefits, property rights in adjoining burial plots or family memberships at some community centers. That could cause partners significant harm at critical moments in their lives, the governor said.

"This extraordinary exemption eviscerates the important rights that enacting a civil union law was meant to guarantee for same sex couples in the first place," Chafee said.

The legislation, sponsored by Democratic state Representative Peter Petrarca, essentially grants legal rights to same-gender partners without the historical and religious meaning associated with the word marriage, according to the Rhode Island General Assembly.

Gay advocacy groups supported some aspects of Rhode Island's civil unions bill but largely shared the same objections as the governor.

Opposed to it altogether is the National Organization for Marriage's Rhode Island chapter. The group said same-sex civil unions threaten the concept of one man-one woman marriage and the bill does not go far enough in protecting 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, but it remains banned in 39 states.

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

(Reporting by Zach Howard; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)

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Comments (3)
JamVee wrote:
He might as well sign it. There is no stopping this movement, it is as inevitable as women getting the vote was, back in 1920, with the 19th Amendment.

Besides, gays may as well join in on the “alimony and child-support” experience.

Jul 02, 2011 6:47pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
klgrube wrote:
This is absolutely NOT what the Governor was elected for. What kind of person is he to think this reprehensible law he imposed on his state doesn’t go far enough toward legitmizing ssm, something the voters clearly DO NOT WANT!! How DARE he disrespect the voters of Rhode Island in such an outrageous manner!

Oh, and to the previous commenter who seems to be echoing the lie that SSM is “inevitable,” I can only say you are either in total denial or you’re indulging in whishful thinking. Only 5 states as of today allow gay “marriage” and two of them (New Hampshire and Iowa) are wroking to repeal their law. I’m not counting New York because it looks as though there are going to be some very strong court challenges to the way their law was imposed on them and its implementation may be delayed. And in New Hampshire, they voted out those who did this to them and gave the state a veto-proof Republican majority with a mandate to forward the repeal. The Republicrats in New York who voted for ssm should have taken notice.

These are the simple facts. In NO state have the voters ever voted for SSM. The only way ssm has been allowed in any state is either be legislative or judicial fiat, against the wishes of the voters. In EVERY state where they have been allowed to vote on this issue, the voters have said a resounding “NO” to ssm. At least 44 states have laws or constitutional provisions defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, more than the 38 it would take to approve a U.S. constitutional amendment defining marriage that way. Minnesota may be passing their constitutional amendment in 2012.

And NO, polls don’t really count much on this issue. The ONLY poll that counts is the one at the ballot box. And you can count on the voters of Rhode Island on voting out this so-called Governor in the next election.

Jul 03, 2011 1:23pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
AimeeF wrote:
@klgrube: Actually, a majority of Rhode Islanders supported marriage equality way back in August 2010 – http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/weekinreview/22gay.html
Of course, you already “decided” that polls don’t count – is that because you know the hard facts were going to prove you wrong?
Just because people haven’t previously voted for same-sex marriage doesn’t mean it can’t happen in the future; that’s a logical fallacy. Anyway, voters really shouldn’t be deciding this issue, because it’s a civil rights issue. James Madison outlined it very clearly in the Federalist Papers that the minority rights must be protected from the tyranny of the majority, and for that reason those issues should not be decided by popular sovereignty. I refer you to Federalist 10 and 51 specifically.
If gay people don’t get to vote on your right to marry, you shouldn’t be able to vote on theirs.

Jul 05, 2011 1:05pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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