Civil Unions but Not Gay Marriage
Since 2002, Rhode Island has permitted couples to enter into unregistered domestic partnerships that provide some of the rights and benefits of marriage. Some of these rights include property, funeral and visitation rights. In June of 2011 a civil union bill was passed by the Rhode Island
General Assembly and Governor Chafee signed it on July 2, 2011. It lists several exemptions but perhaps the most problematic relates to religious-affiliated institutions and the right to deny recognition of gay civil unions. Institutions that are allowed to do so include hospitals, schools and universities making this bill somewhat unpopular among supporters of gay marriage. Retroactively, the measure took effect July 1, 2011.
During the actual approval process for the civil union bill, many gay and marriage equality rights activists opposed it for its discrimination. It came up as a compromise when openly gay Gordon Fox—who was speaker of the House at the time—revealed that he would not be able to get enough votes for the gay marriage bill. He was the country’s first gay speaker of the House, who came out in 2004, and left gay rights activists shocked with this reversal. Since he thought there was no realistic chance to get the votes to achieve gay marriage he chose to back civil unions. Gay marriage bills have consistently been rejected since 1997.
As with bills in other states, supporters find it unacceptable because it allows certain entities to opt out of—or refuse to accept—responsibility to gay citizens. Harsh but possible examples include a Catholic hospital denying an LGBT the right to make a medical decision regarding his or her partner.
Ray Sullivan, the campaign director for Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) said “you’re never going to see us trumpet civil unions…we believe civil unions establish a second-class citizenry.” MERI has been the leading organization in the fight for gay marriage in the state. He continued on “we support common-sense exemption, but no government should ever grant a religion or organization the autonomous authority to operate outside the boundaries of the law.”
Bill Fischer, the spokesman for Marriage Equality Rhode Island, also commented on what the difference between civil unions and marriage really means for couples. “We’ve been asked a lot lately regarding full marriage versus civil union versus reciprocal benefits, what it actually means. And I think it’s important to note [that] reciprocal benefits would provide same-sex couples with approximately 15 rights, civil unions with about 600 rights, and full marriage equality with about 1,700 rights.” The rights he refers to is a combination of about 600 state and 1,100 federal rights that come to together in denying gay couples around 1,700.
- Can same-sex couples marry in Rhode Island? No.
- Can same-sex couples enter into civil unions? Yes, but with strict conditions.
- Can same-sex couples enter into domestic partnerships? Yes, and without registration.