In compromise, R.I. approves civil unions for same-sex couples
PROVIDENCE — Less than a week after same-sex marriage was legalized in New York, the Rhode Island State Senate approved a bill last night allowing not marriage, but civil unions for gay couples, despite fierce opposition from gay-rights advocates who called the legislation discriminatory.
The bill, which already passed in the state’s House of Representatives and which the governor said he was likely to sign, would grant same-sex couples most of the rights and benefits that Rhode Island provides married couples. It was offered as a compromise this spring after Gordon D. Fox, the openly gay speaker of the Democratc-controlled House, said he could not muster enough votes to pass a same-sex marriage bill.
Gay marriage advocates initially hoped for success in Rhode Island this year. The new governor, Lincoln D. Chafee, an independent, had championed their cause, and Fox, who became speaker last year, also appeared eager to get such a bill passed.
Four other New England states allow same-sex marriage: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
But M. Teresa Paiva Weed, a Democrat and the state Senate president, opposes gay marriage, and Fox ultimately threw his support to civil unions instead, calling it a more realistic goal.
Gay rights advocates say the bill is unacceptable because it allows religious organizations to not recognize the unions. For example, they say, a Catholic hospital could choose not to allow medical decisions to be made by a same-sex partner, and a Catholic university could deny family medical leave to gay employees.
“It’s a permission slip to ignore legal obligations,’’ said Karen L. Loewy, a lawyer at Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, or GLAD.
Some same-sex marriage foes, including the Roman Catholic Church, are also against the civil unions bill. But Paiva Weed said she saw it as a worthy trade-off.
“We have moved one step in the right direction toward ensuring that individuals receive equal rights and protections under the law,’’ Paiva Weed said before the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill yesterday. After the committee vote, Paiva Weed said that she did not expect the Legislature to vote on a same-sex marriage bill next year, either.
The bill provides for hospital visitations, joint bank accounts, and property transfers, among other rights. If Chafee signs it, Rhode Island will become the fifth state with a civil unions law; Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey already allow civil unions for gay couples.