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LGBT Groups Urge Veto of Rhode Island Civil Unions Bill

Jim Burroway

June 29th, 2011

A broad coalition of LGBT advocacy groups are urging Rhode Island governor to veto the fatally flawed Civil Unions Bill which passed the state Senate earlier today. According to a press release sent out by two of those groups:

On the heels of a marriage victory in New York, marriage advocates including Freedom to Marry and the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) sent a letter late yesterday evening to Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee calling on him to veto the civil union bill currently under consideration if it comes to his desk in its present form.  The bill contains a provision that would allow   religious organizations and their employees to disregard couples’ civil union status, creating unprecedented, onerous and discriminatory hurdles for same-sex couples seeking to take care of one another.

“This flawed civil union bill undermines a crucial principle that Rhode Island has always stood for — respecting the separation of church and state,” said Marc Solomon, National Campaign Director for Freedom to Marry.  “Not only does the bill propose a separate-and-unequal status instead of ending the denial of marriage itself, it grants an unprecedented license to discriminate against same-sex couples and their families. Governor Chafee should veto this defective bill and work with the legislature to enact a marriage bill that ends discrimination while preserving religious and personal freedom on equal terms for all.”

The letter, which was signed by groups including Freedom to Marry and GLAD, reads: 
This amendment could allow individuals, who are legally required to recognize everyone else’s legal commitments, to opt out of doing so only for gay and lesbian people.   In practical terms, this law could allow religiously affiliated hospitals to deny a civil union spouse’s right to be by his spouse’s side and make medical decisions for him, and could allow religiously affiliated agencies to deny an employee’s right to leave in order to care for his civil union spouse under Rhode Island Family and Medical Leave.

To read the full letter and see the full list of signers, click here.

“The Corvese amendment actually diminishes protections already available under Rhode Island law, and is seriously damaging to Rhode Island’s gay and lesbian families. If it becomes law, there is trouble ahead for Rhode Island’s same-sex couples,” said Karen Loewy, Senior Staff Attorney for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders.

Signatories to the letter include: American Civil Liberties Union, Family Equality Council, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), Freedom to Marry, Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Marriage Equality Rhode Island, National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

When New York lawmakers negotiated that state’s marriage equality bill, particular focus was on a set of provisions which would provide an exemption for religious groups and organizations from being required to recognize same-sex marriage. New York’s exemptions were narrow and carefully crafted, giving very little away from what was already constitutionally guaranteed under the First Amendment. Those limits were carefully placed around churches, religious schools, and housing provided for members of a particular faith.

But the exemptions in Rhode Island’s civil unions bill, as it currently stands, pretty much allows virtually anyone to ignore a couple’s civil union:

15-3.1-5. Conscience and religious organizations protected. –

(a) Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, no religious or denominational organization, no organization operated for charitable or educational purpose which is supervised or controlled by or in connection with a religious organization, and no individual employed by any of the foregoing organizations, while acting in the scope of that employment, shall be required:

(1) To provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges for a purpose related to the solemnization, certification, or celebration of any civil union; or

(2) To solemnize or certify any civil union; or

(3) To treat as valid any civil union; if such providing, solemnizing, certifying, or treating as valid would cause such  organizations or individuals to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

(b) No organization or individual as described in subsection (a) above who fails or refuses to provide, solemnize, certify, or treat as valid, as described in subdivision (a)(1), (a)(2) or (a)(3) above, persons in a civil union, shall be subject to a fine, penalty, or other cause of action for such failure or refusal.



Timothy Kincaid
June 29th, 2011 | LINK

If any of those Catholic hospitals accept Medicare, they already have to allow patients to determine who is family, regardless of theology or religious position.

As for the rest, I respect the opinions of GLAD and the others about those who choose employment with the Catholic Church, but I’m with Chaffee on this. Its a step in the right direction and until marriage equality can be achieved, this bill will protect the rights of real people, actual same-sex couples, living in Rhode Island.

June 29th, 2011 | LINK

The only problem that I have with the proposed ‘exemption clause’ is that the exemptions extend to groups that receive public funds. Other than that, I also agree with Chaffee.

Jim Burroway
June 29th, 2011 | LINK

My concern is that this bill will actually delay the progress toward marriage equality. I think marriage quality is achievable with good leadership, if not now then in a couple of years. But if civil unions are already in place, too many people will see it as not being much of a priority, it’ll be the better part of a decade before true equality arrives. Meanwhile, these exemptions are so broad that those who have civil unions will find that they won’t even be able to get Meals on Wheels or proper nursing home care as a couple.

Patrick Garies
June 30th, 2011 | LINK

I think this amendment highlights that the marriage equality controversy has nothing to do with marriage per se and everything to do with religion and recognition of the legitimacy of gay people.

The whole point of civil unions is that they’re supposed to be a completely secular alternative to marriage. And yet now we have to have a conscience opt-out for a civil contract. That defeats the whole purpose of a civil unions compromise.

Instead of this amendment, all licensed marriage officials should be required to grant civil unions to all who request them with no religious exemptions unless that person only marries and unions people belonging to a very specific religious organization and makes membership checks prior to granting a marriage or civil union. This would make sense because, of course, civil unions are not supposed to have any religious connotation.

(That or we could just go straight to marriage equality avoiding the whole mess from the start.)

June 30th, 2011 | LINK

I repeat what I said elsewhere on BTB. If this were Idaho, I’d be pleased to get this. If this were a referendum state, I’d accept this as a step in the right direction.

But this is Rhode Island, where the Dems control both chambers by huge majorities. Republicans are a negligible factor and there is no referendum process. The polls in RI show substantial support. And the voters in 2010 selected the most outspoken pro-SSM gubernatorial candidate out of a field of 3. In that context, getting a civil unions bill with the broadest religious exemption of any state is not a step in the right direction; it is more like a slap in the face.

Priya Lynn
June 30th, 2011 | LINK

People act like these religious exemptions don’t matter and that they are happy to give them away. I’m with Jim, this is going too far and will delay full equality a long time.

If you keep going down this path pretty soon the only marriage gays and lesbians will be able to get is one that everyone is free to ignore, a situation no different than it would be if a couple had a church marry them in Texas – entirely symbolic.

Philip D
June 30th, 2011 | LINK

Rhode Island already recognizes same sex marriages from other states with none of these religious exemptions. The new law specifically notes the exemptions relate only to civil unions. Therefore, a same sex couple married in another state could be treated differently in Rhode Island than a same sex couple with a civil union. Seems completely unconstitutional. The legislators aren’t doing their jobs.

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