Rhode Island Senate Passes Civil Union Bill 21-16

UPDATE: Rhode Island Senate has passed the civil union bill 21-16. It's now headed to Governor Lincoln Chafee's desk. Chafee has promised to sign it despite a letter from LGBT advocacy groups asking him to veto. See below.


Rhode Island's civil union bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday afternoon:

Ri With Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed calling it "a historic day," the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7 to 4 Wednesday to recommend passage of a bill that legalizes same-sex civil unions.

The bill, which establishes marriage-like rights for people joined in civil unions, was expected to go before the full Senate as early as Wednesday evening.

Paiva Weed, who joined the committee for its meeting and voted for passage, called the bill "a compromise."

Lawmakers are expected to approve the bill:

Gov. Lincoln Chaffe, an independent, is expected to sign the bill into law should it pass the Democrat-controlled Senate, according to his spokesman, Michael Trainor.

But the controversial measure also drew sharp criticism from religious leaders and other opposition groups who say it would lead to court-ordered action that would eventually legalize same-sex marriage.

Many LGBT advocacy groups are calling on Chafee to veto the bill:

In a two-page letter sent to the governor, the groups said the bill — scheduled for a Senate Judiciary Committee vote on Wednesday afternoon — “represents a huge step backward from Rhode Island’s longstanding nondiscrimination commitments” and provides “individuals and institutions a free-floating license to discriminate against a whole class of people, in defiance of general law.”

“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,” the groups wrote. “In practical terms, this law could allow religiously affiliated hospitals to deny a civil union’s spouse’s right to be by his spouse’s side and make medical decisions for him.”

The groups that signed the letter included Marriage Equality Rhode Island, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Freedom to Marry and the American Civil Liberties Union.


  1. BillyBoy says

    One can argue against this law, but this argument — this law could allow religiously affiliated hospitals to deny a civil union’s spouse’s right to be by his spouse’s side and make medical decisions for him. — is totally bogus. How do you persuade people when you show up front that you don’t understand the issues?

  2. daftpunkydavid says

    i really dislike the non-deserving use of the term “historic”. it’s not historic. it may be pragmatic; it’s probably coward, but historic? no!

  3. PLAINTOM says

    This is a difficult strategic call. I assume the local activists have evaluated the situation very carefully.

  4. candideinncccc says

    We need more detail. It isn’t like Lambda to oppose bills that further our rights. This definitely sounds like a bad bill.

  5. says

    Why would anyone in Rhode Island want some crappy piece of paper stating they have a civil union when they can drive 45 minutes to a neighboring state and get married?

  6. MikeBoston says

    I guess we should be happy that Rhode Island has finally learned to crawl when it’s neighbour one one side has been walking for years and the neighbour on the other side has been walking for more than a year. Some children are just slow.

    Any politician in RI will just look stupid if they try to pat themselves on the back for this tiny action – especially in light of events in NY. My feeling is they will bring marriage to a vote a year from now.

  7. Kendall says

    “But the controversial measure also drew sharp criticism from religious leaders and other opposition groups who say it would lead to court-ordered action that would eventually legalize same-sex marriage.”

    I don’t understand the opposition from gay rights groups. After civil unions pass, it would be easy to make a 14th amendment argument that full marriage equality is the only constitutional remedy for the separate-but-equal classifications.

  8. searunner says

    @daftpunkykid: it’s cowardly as Weed is the one who squashed marriage equality. Her opposiiton made marriage equality DOA in the RI Senate, which in turn led to the RI House not voting.

    @candide: The bill allows religious organizations and groups to ‘not treat as valid’ civil unions, basically they don’t have to recognize a civil union if they don’t want. This exemption is limited to religion groups and organizations and not just anyone. In addition, the bill has a severability clause, so, a court can strike down part of the bill and the rest will remain.

    It’s not the best bill, but it is something and the other option is to wait until after the 2012 elections and see what the RI Senate feels up to doing. And doing that does nothing but force same-sex couples to continue to wait. There’s no reason we shouldn’t take this and work on getting full marriage equality after the 2012 election. So, MERI better start working on electing more marriage equality supporters to the RI State Senate.

  9. searunner says

    @Homer: And have that marriage downgraded to a civil union once they cross back into RI?

  10. says

    I’m also not quote understanding that if the organizations think that the civil unions bill discriminates on the basis of religion–they could also try and sue in court.

    That being said, it is fascinating that NY did not go as far as pandering to religious-based homophobia as politicians did in Rhode Island, despite having a weaker political position in New York than the complete Democratic control (and Independent governor) in Rhode Island.

    I seriously doubt Chafee is going to be convinced to veto the measure.

    The religious exemption language I saw looked really bad. I’m shocked Speaker Gordon Fox would let a bill like that go through his chamber.

  11. Tyler says

    Looks like a few of the most liberal senators actually voted no. I’m not sure if that was a good idea, just because it makes the vote, 21-16, look more close than it actually was. I think the House’s having passed civil unions by a 6-1 margin showed how crappy the civil unions compromise was.

    That being said, Paiva Weed can shove it. She’s the reason this is a civil union bill and not a marriage bill. So she can take her “historic day” and shove it.

    As MLK said, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

  12. Keith says

    Since when do we accept a “compromise” on the definition of our relationships?

  13. evolutionisfact says

    Yuppers, it shhhhurely is a “historic” day in the GRAND OL PARTY state of Rhodey island!! Here we have a bill that actually ENDORSES anti gay discrimination passed with flying colors by one of our very own(NOT)Gordon Fox!! We’ll remember this one fantastic Mr. Fox come your re-election day(NOT)!!

  14. Tyler says


    Fox isn’t the problem. It’s Paiva Weed. Civil unions are probably better than nothing, so I don’t get why Fox gets the blame. He could have gotten marriage through the House if the Senate had any inclination to pass it, which it didn’t. Put the blame where it belongs, on Paiva Weed and the DINOs in the Senate.

  15. Jeff says

    Keep in mind Connecticut started out as Civil Unions and then became marriages later. It could happen in RI too!!

  16. searunner says

    @Jeff: The CT Supreme Court ordered the CT state legislature to pass full marriage equality. But, I do think you are right, marriage equality is just around the corner for RI.

  17. ratbastard says

    R.I. 45 minutes to MA? In what universe? Drive 10-15 minutes from Providence, you’re in MA. 30-40 minutes, you’re in downtown Boston.

  18. Ken says

    This bill is a complete disaster. I guees the positive way to look at it is that this law so flawed and so discriminatory that it may provide us with a decent shot at overturning it in the courts. When Paiva Weed calls it a “historic day”, she doesn’t mean it in a positive way for gays. It’s historic because she has managed to stop marriage equality in a state where six months ago it seemed like a foregone conclusion.

  19. Rich F. says

    @ Ken: Exactly. Chafee will sign it (however flawed the bill is, at the moment it’s better than nothing), it will go into effect, and then the lawsuits will start.

    And I concur: Paiva Weed can go to hell.

  20. wimsy says

    It’s absolutely shameful that the arrogant, sanctimonious, spiteful Catholic hierarchy still has so much power in RI.

  21. bob says

    I’m really surprised that people don’t catch the significance of religious exemptions to marriage equality laws. The Jehovahites are the main reason we need these laws in the first place. If it were truly a civil issue, there wouldn’t be much of an issue. It’s always been over the morality of same sex relationships.
    And, people forget that the state system of orphanages was created because of religion’s overt moral discrimination against children who, through no fault of their own, were born under the wrong moral circumstances. Somehow, over the years, churches have eliminated the state competition and are back to the old moral practices but with a state sponsored monopoly.
    So now we have a law that goes against the well established concept of equal rights FOR ALL and codifies into law religious discrimination against the oppressed. What Would Jesus Do, indeed.