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R.I. enacts gay partners’ funeral-planning right

Lawmakers vote to override veto

By Ray Henry
Associated Press / January 6, 2010

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PROVIDENCE - Rhode Island lawmakers voted yesterday to allow same-sex and unmarried couples the right to plan the funerals of their late partners, overriding a veto by the governor, who warned it will erode traditional marriage.

The bill passed 67 to 3 in the House and 31 to 3 in the Senate, winning support from several Republican lawmakers. Governor Donald L. Carcieri, a Republican, is an adamant opponent of same-sex marriage in a state that does not recognize gay unions.

The new funeral-planning rights also apply to unmarried heterosexual couples.

Mark Goldberg, 49, pushed for the legislation after struggling for five weeks to claim the body of his partner of 17 years, Ron Hanby, who committed suicide in October 2008. The state medical examiner would not release Hanby’s body to Goldberg because they were not married or family, even though the couple had wills and other legal documents attesting to their relationship.

“Not being able to claim his body was certainly something that was beyond belief, was beyond human compassion from anyone,’’ Goldberg said. “There was just no compassion whatsoever from anyone in the state.’’

Rhode Island does not recognize gay marriage, partly because of opposition from Roman Catholic church leaders in the most heavily Catholic state in the country. Maine is the only other New England state that does not recognize same-sex marriage. Bills legalizing gay unions have died in the state’s Democratic-dominated Legislature every year since they were first introduced in 1997.

Gordon Fox, the House majority leader and a Democrat who is gay, said the bill was about helping the bereaved, not changing the definition of marriage.

“You’re dealing with tragedy, one of the worst events in human life as we know it,’’ Fox said, asking his fellow lawmakers to empathize with Goldberg’s ordeal.

“To be turned away, that you don’t count, to be victimized again - who amongst us would want to feel that way?’’ Fox argued.

To qualify for funeral-planning rights, a couple must be at least 18, have lived together for one year, and prove they were financially dependent by, for example, owning property together or sharing a bank account.

Carcieri argued that state law already allows residents to designate people to plan their funerals. He said the requirements in the bill meant to prove a relationship were too vague.

“This bill represents a disturbing trend over the past few years of the incremental erosion of the principles surrounding traditional marriage,’’ Carcieri said.