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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 1, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 26
LGBT activists call for veto of Rhode Island civil unions bill
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LGBT activists call for veto of Rhode Island civil unions bill

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

A bill establishing same-sex civil unions passed the Rhode Island Senate on June 29 and is now headed to the governor's desk for his signature, but LGBT activists in that state are not celebrating.

Instead, they are calling for Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee to veto the bill.

At issue is the bill's 'religious exemption' that was added to the measure in hopes of overcoming some of the objections to same-sex unions.

The bill defines a 'civil union' as 'a legal union between two individuals of the same sex,' assigning the same 'rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities' that come with marriage between opposite-sex partners.

It also states that religious organizations and their employees 'shall not be required' to 'treat as valid any civil union.'

LGBT activists say that language goes beyond the usual exemption allowing religious institutions to refuse to bless same-sex commitment ceremonies. Under the bill, they say, hospitals run by religious groups may refuse to allow partners in same-sex civil unions the right to make emergency medical decisions or even to visit their loved ones.

Marriage Equality Rhode Island Board Chair Martha Holt issued a statement after the Senate vote on June 29, calling on Gov. Chafee to veto the measure.

'We are extremely disappointed that the Senate brazenly ignored the commonsense objections raised by equality and civil rights leaders here and across the country,' she said.

'This civil union bill contains dangerous and discriminatory language that, without question, will cause significant harm to countless Gay and Lesbian couples in loving, committed relationships, and we will continue to fight it through whatever means are necessary. Furthermore, we renew our request that the governor veto this hurtful and ill-conceived bill. To not do so would be a slap in the face to the gay and lesbian community, and every Rhode Islander who cares about equal rights and protections for all our state's citizens.'

Marriage Equality Rhode Island Campaign Director Ray Sullivan called the exemption a 'black eye on the state of Rhode Island.'

'I'm not sure they'd be so quick to use the word compromise when it affects them,' he said. 'You compromise on tax policy. You compromise on labor negotiations. You don't compromise on people's fundamental human rights.'

Chafee said he opposes the religious exemption language but added, 'Sometimes you don't get it all.'

'Rhode Island, by our demographics, it's a difficult state to make some of these changes,' he said. 'Changes come a little slow when you have a high elderly population, the highest Roman Catholic [population] in the country. It's just demographic factors.'

Almost 64% of Rhode Island's population identifies as Roman Catholic. Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence has been an outspoken opponent of marriage equality and civil unions.

The vote in the Rhode Island Senate was 21 to 16 in favor. The bill had already passed the state House of Representatives.

Rhode Island's legislature is dominated by Democrats, who have a 21-vote majority in the Senate and a 55-vote majority in the House.

The compromise civil unions bill emerged on May 3, after openly Gay House Speaker Gordon D. Fox announced that he could not come up with the votes needed to pass a same-sex marriage bill.

After passage, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed called it 'a historic day' for her state.

Other senators were not so enthusiastic about the legislation.

Sen. Rhoda Perry of Providence said that while it might be 'historic,' it was also correct 'to say this bill is not fair, nor equitable.'

Some other senators compared the bill to the 'separate but equal' doctrine that justified racial segregation.

Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush, a supporter of marriage equality, said she was concerned that 'this historic and momentous piece of legislation, while conferring rights, does not confer equality.'

'Rights can never be confused with equality,' she said.

Nesselbush, who said she was raised Catholic and described herself as 'deeply religious,' also said that 'religion has no place in the hallowed halls of this State House.'

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