June 24, 2011
By: Joe Siegel/TRT Reporter
With only a few weeks left in the 2011 legislative session, a vote on a civil unions bill has yet to take place in the State Senate.
The House approved the civil unions bill by a vote of 62-11 in May.
On April 27, openly gay House Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence) stunned the LGBT community when he endorsed civil unions, noting there was no chance of marriage equality bill due to a lack of support in the House. However, Reps. Peter Petrarca (D-Lincoln) and Patrick O’Neill (D-Pawtucket) said there were enough votes in the House to pass the bill.
Fox, who had promised a floor vote on a same-sex marriage bill, noted civil unions would be “a step forward for our state.”
With the support of Governor Lincoln Chafee (I) and Fox, same-sex marriage activists were hopeful Rhode Island would join its neighbors Massachusetts and Connecticut in granting full marriage rights to same-sex couples.
Hearings were held on a marriage bill in both chambers in February and March. Support for the bill came from high-profile political figures, such as Congressman James Langevin (D) and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian (R). Polls showed the majority of Rhode Islanders supported allowing gays and lesbians to wed.
However, Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport) remains opposed to same-sex marriage. She does support civil unions.
Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) is urging supporters to contact legislators about an amendment to the civil unions bill which contains religious exemptions. This amendment was sponsored by Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence). In a statement, MERI said the amendment was added “at the last second on the floor, received little debate, and passed with many of the members now saying they were unaware of the amendment’s intentions or potential consequences.”
In a June 1 e-mail, MERI Campaign Director Ray Sullivan said “this is a bad bill, with real and harmful consequences.”
The bill the House passed would, for example, allow: that a civil union spouse be denied the ability to make medical decisions for his or her spouse in a religiously-affiliated hospital despite having the legal authority to do so, an employee at a religious-affiliated organization could be denied Rhode Island Family and Medical Leave to care for his or her civil union spouse, a religious cemetery could deny the rights of a civil union spouse to determine the disposition of his or her deceased partner’s remains, a religiously-affiliated school could refuse to treat both parents of an enrolled student who was born into his or her parents’ civil union as people legally authorized to direct the student’s education.
Legislators who support marriage equality expressed mixed feelings on the civil unions bill.
“I do not like second class citizenship,” said State Senator James Sheehan (D-N.Kingstown). “But, it is much better than third class. And, civil unions do preclude gay marriage in the future.”
“I believe that it is a step forward,” said openly gay State Rep. Frank Ferri, (D-Warwick) who delivered an emotional speech to his colleagues on the House floor during the civil unions debate. “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,” Ferri added, “but this doesn’t end the fight.”
Filed Under: Eastern NE News