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R.I. Civil Unions Law Elicits Lukewarm Response from Same-Sex Couples

by Joe Siegel
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Tuesday Jul 12, 2011
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LGBT Rhode Islanders have given a lukewarm reception to their state’s recently signed civil unions law.

Clerks in the state’s two largest cities-Providence and Warwick-did not report any requests for applications on July 5, the first day same-sex couples were able to obtain one.

Rhode Island is the fifth state, along with New Jersey, Illinois, Delaware and Hawaii, to recognize civil unions.

The state’s first civil union ceremony was held in Burrillville on Saturday, July 9.

Aaron Coutu, 35, and Ray Daignault, III, 44, applied for a civil union license just days after Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed the bill into law.

Coutu and Daignault have lived together in Burrillville, a rural community 20 minutes north of Providence, with no problems. Both are involved in local civic and charitable events-Coutu works as a librarian at the Greenville Public Library and chairs the board at the Jesse Smith Library, where the ceremony was held.

Chafee, a supporter of full marriage equality for same-sex couples, expressed mixed feelings on the legislation. "I am signing this bill because I believe that same-sex couples should have the same legal rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities as heterosexual couples," he wrote. "Although this measure is a step forward, it fails to fully achieve those goals in its present form."

In his statement, the governor said he had urged the General Assembly to adopt legislation that would allow same-sex couples to marry, which he described as a civil right.

"I believe that it is unfair to treat the relationships of same-sex couples differently than the relationships of heterosexual couples under the law and that such differential treatment serves no rational government purpose," he wrote.

"Everyone Should Have Civil Unions-Straight or Gay"
Stephen Hartley and his partner Brian Deslauriers, together for six years, are planning to get a civil union. Hartley believes civil unions are just as valid as marriage.

"I think everyone should have civil unions-straight or gay and if they chose to have a religious ceremony, then in the eyes of the church they would be married," said Hartley. "I just want the same rights as anyone in Rhode Island who at this time are married. I could care less what they call it as long as I have the same rights."

Others are not pleased with the concept of civil unions and hope to keep pushing skittish legislators to grant full marriage rights to same-sex couples.

"I don’t know anyone getting one," said Wendy Becker, who married her wife Mary Norton in neighboring Massachusetts in 2006. "I believe civil unions are based on a premise that gay and lesbian inclusion will hurt the institution of marriage or lead to the destruction of civilization. I cannot understand why anyone would support them given this underlying premise."

There are legal questions regarding the validity of same-sex marriages performed out of state.

Former Attorney General Patrick Lynch issued an advisory opinion on the subject in 2007. He said Rhode Island would recognize same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts.

Amy Kempe, spokesperson for current Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, noted this opinion was not a statute or case law. The question remains, however, whether the state would consider a same-sex marriage performed out of state valid.

"Only the courts can answer a question like that in a case if it is brought before them," said Kempe.

Becker seems to think so.

"My marriage is being recognized in Rhode Island and I will continue to assume my legal marriage will continue to be respected in Rhode Island," she said.

Groups Challenge Civil Unions Law’s Religious Exemptions
The Human Rights Campaign, Freedom to Marry, and Marriage Equality Rhode Island had all urged Chafee to veto the civil unions bill due to the religious exemptions contained in it. Under the bill, for example, a hospital with a religious affiliation could ignore the right of one individual in a civil union to make medical decisions for the other.

Gay state Rep. Frank Ferri (D-Warwick) intends to introduce an amendment to the bill which would strip away those exemptions. "I will need to establish support for it even before I introduce it," Ferri told EDGE. "I know there are many progressives and supporters in the house that will back me. We need to expose the facts and how absurd it is that a hospital could refuse to recognize the relationship of a couple who have a legal commitment. I am not sure they could refuse services because someone is gay, but they could refuse to recognize their partner to make medical decisions."

In 1995, the Rhode Island General Assembly extended civil rights guarantees to gays and lesbians by approving a measure that bars discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and credit based on sexual orientation. Then-Gov. Lincoln C. Almond, a Republican, signed the bill into law.

Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.

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