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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 8, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 27
RI governor signs civil unions bill, some unhappy
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RI governor signs civil unions bill, some unhappy

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee signed his state's new civil unions bill into law on July 1, but nobody celebrated.

LGBT rights organizations had urged him to veto the bill, because it contained language allowing religious organizations - including service providers like hospitals - to refuse to recognize legal same-sex civil unions.

Also unhappy were that state's Roman Catholic bishop and his allies in NOM (the National Organization for Marriage), who had pulled out all the stops in a failed effort to defeat the bill.

While Chafee acknowledged 'reservations' because of the 'unparalleled and alarming scope' of the so-called 'religious exemptions' the bill contains, he nevertheless called it 'a step forward.'

'[The bill] 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 said at the signing.

The new law includes a section that says no religious organization - including hospitals, cemeteries, schools, and community centers - or its employees may be required to recognize a same-sex civil union.

As a result, LGBT activists said, a partner in a civil union 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.

Consequently, a number of LGBT organizations, including Marriage Equality Rhode Island, Freedom to Marry, and HRC, urged Chafee to veto it.

Taking no action at all, they said, is better than enacting legislation that enshrines second-class status for same-sex couples.

Lesbian Rhode Island Senator Donna Nesselbush said she voted against the civil union bill because it failed to deliver equal rights for same-sex couples.

'From a conscience point of view, I couldn't press the green button and vote for that,' she said. 'We can't confuse rights with equality.'

Even Gov. Chafee admitted, '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.'

Meanwhile, Thomas Tobin, Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence and an outspoken opponent of same-sex civil unions, forbade Catholics to have anything to do with them.

'Because civil unions promote an unacceptable lifestyle, undermine the faith of the Church on holy matrimony, and cause scandal and confusion, Catholics may not participate in civil unions,' he warned.

'To do so is a very grave violation of the moral law and, thus, seriously sinful. A civil union can never be accepted as a legitimate alternative to matrimony.'

NOM said the bill does not go far enough in protecting the religious values of businesses and individuals.

Four New England states - Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut - now authorize same-sex marriage. With Gov. Chafee's signature, Rhode Island permits same-sex civil unions.

Maine legalized same-sex marriage in May 2009, but the law was overturned in a referendum the following November. Maine does allow same-sex domestic partnerships.

Same-sex marriage is also legal in Iowa, the District of Columbia, and New York.

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