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Civil Unions a Bust in Rhode Island

by Joe Siegel
Contributor
Monday Aug 27, 2012
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Rhode Island legalized same-sex civil unions in 2011, but few couples have bothered to obtain licenses. In light of full marriage equality in neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut, they appear to be unwilling to settle for second-class status; that, or they’re put off by sweeping religious exemptions built into the legislation.

Only 68 Ocean Staters have obtained civil union licenses since the state legalized the relationships. The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union reported the data obtained from the state’s Department of Health. In comparison, when a similar law was passed in Hawaii, 106 same-sex couples applied for civil union licenses. In Delaware, by contrast, 85 applied in the first month, according to the ACLU.

ACLU officials believe that same-sex couples object the the extremely broad religious exemption in the law known as the "Corvese Amendment," which they see as significantly undercutting the law’s purpose.

"The amendment essentially allows any religiously affiliated institutions or employees of those institutions to disregard the validity of a couple’s civil union," wrote the ACLU in a press release. "In addition, four of the five other New England states authorize same-sex marriage, highlighting the second-class status of civil unions for Rhode Islanders."

Speaker of the Rhode Island House, Gordon Fox (D-Providence), who is openly gay, intends to push a marriage equality bill through during the next session. But it’s still unclear if it would pass in the Senate. Marriage equality activists are working to replace incumbents who oppose the legislation in the November year’s election.

Last year, the ACLU called the civil unions law "a bust." The organization cited the inclusion of "broad religious exemptions that undermine the unions’ value, the availability of marriage equality in all the surrounding states, and twelve years of anticipation for full marriage equality."

The ACLU study compared Rhode Island’s civil unions law to that of Illinois’, which also took effect last summer. Accounting for population differences, Illinois had 15 times more civil unions in its first month than Rhode Island.

Only 14 same-sex couples in the Ocean State obtained civil unions in the two months after the governor signed the bill into law. For their part, longtime marriage equality activists are claiming that they the lack of enthusiasm for civil unions has hardly come as a surprise.

"Unless a couple needs health insurance, who would want to subject themselves to a second class status?" asked Wendy Becker, of the Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, who married to her wife in Massachusetts. "The community soundly rejected the notion that we are less deserving of anything but full citizenship and a little bit of dignity. Seems completely predictable to me."

"While some people see civil unions as offering a practical solution to some legal issues, most people I know see civil unions as a poor, inadequate and demeaning response to conservative religious lobbying, especially by the Roman Catholic diocese," added Ken Fish, of Marriage Equality Rhode Island. "People aren’t stupid, and most have more pride and self respect than to accept second-class treatment. Most, like myself, will wait for true marriage equality next year."

Same-sex marriage is legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C.. Maine, Maryland and Washington will vote this fall on proposals to authorize gay marriage. Minnesota voters will be asked if they want to prohibit gay marriage in their state constitution.

Civil unions in other states with populations similar to Rhode Island’s, (about 1 million), have attracted much more interest. Hawaii issued 106 licenses within one month of civil unions taking effect. Delaware issued 85 licensesin the first month of civil unions there.

"The legalization of civil unions in Hawaii represents in my mind equal rights for all people," said Democratic Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie at a signing ceremony last January. Hawaii, in fact, pioneered the whole gay-marriage debate in the United States back in the ’90s.


Opponents of Gay Marriage See RI as Trying to Redefine Marriage

Opponents of gay marriage, unsurprisingly, took another view of the subject. Chris Plante, director of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), said the response to civil unions shows the debate "is not about rights but about trying to redefine the institution of marriage."

State Rep. Peter Petrarca, (D-Lincoln) who sponsored the civil union law, said he isn’t worried that so few couples have taken advantage of the new law. He supports same-sex marriage but saw civil unions as a pragmatic way to give same-sex couples added rights immediately.

"It was the best thing we could do at the time," Petrarca said. "If same-sex couples want to wait to see what happens [with gay marriage], that’s their right."

Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) Campaign Director Ray Sullivan is not surprised at the lackluster response for civil unions.

"I think folks who have (obtained) civil unions recognize that it is fundamentally flawed as a law and does not provide the kind of recognition and protection only marriage can afford," Sullivan said. "The majority of loving and committed couples in this state want the fight to go on for full marriage rights."

Sullivan said 2012 has been a "significant year of progress" for marriage equality, citing Governor Lincoln Chafee’s signing of an executive order mandating state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages performed out of state, and the endorsement of marriage rights for same-sex couples by all four members of the state’s congressional delegation.

"We kept fighting," Sullivan told EDGE, noting there are more supporters of marriage equality in the House and Senate than ever before. He urged the LGBT community to help elect more pro-marriage equality legislators.

"If you care about equal rights for all citizens, then you need to get involved," Sullivan said. "Join us at a phone bank, go knock on doors for a pro-equality candidate. This is a critical time right now and we can’t have people sitting on the sidelines thinking someone else is going to step up and do the work that needs to get done."


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

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