Chafee said he signed the civil unions bill with "reservations" because it "brings tangible rights and benefits to thousands of Rhode Islanders. He had two major criticisms of the civil union bill: that it failed to provide full marriage equality to same-sex couples and that it allowed religious entities to choose to not recognize civil unions. Describing the proposal that passed the tiny New England state's Senate this week as "a step forward," he said it did not fully achieve its goals of giving same gender pairs the same rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities as married couples.
The new law includes a section that says no religious organization -- including some hospitals, cemeteries, schools and community centers -- or its employees may be required to treat as valid any civil union, providing a religious exemption "of unparalleled and alarming scope," Chafee said in a statement. As a result, a civil union spouse could be denied the right to make medical decisions for his or her partner, access to health insurance benefits, property rights in adjoining burial plots or family memberships at some community centers. That could cause partners significant harm at critical moments in their lives, the governor said. "This extraordinary exemption eviscerates the important rights that enacting a civil union law was meant to guarantee for same sex couples in the first place," Chafee said.
Rhode Island and Maine have not joined their four New England neighbors - Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut -- in legalizing same-sex nuptials. Same sex marriage is also now legal in Iowa, the District of Columbia and, most recently, New York. Civil unions are also approved in Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey.
But as Think Progress reports, this could be a loaded weapon against marriage equality:
Yesterday, the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee approved a civil unions bill that marriage equality advocates oppose, but not before making a subtle revision. In regards to reciprocity (recognizing unions from other states and countries), the language that allowed for recognizing “substantially similar legal relationships” was removed. It now reads:
15-3.1-8. Reciprocity. — A civil union legally entered into in another jurisdiction, shall be recognized in Rhode Island as a civil union; provided, that the relationship meets the eligibility requirements of this chapter.This means that the bill would only recognize “civil unions” from other states, leaving the question of same-sex marriages and domestic partnerships up in the air, and possibly severely at risk.
Currently, the status of imported same-sex marriages in Rhode Island is considered inconsistently on a case-by-case basis. In 2007, Attorney General Patrick Lynch released a legal opinion stating that the state did not explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage and so should recognize such marriages performed elsewhere. That same year, however, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that a same-sex couple could not get a divorce in the state. Until the legislature or courts specifically weigh in on the matter, same-sex couples married elsewhere face some uncertainty, but certainly some potential in Rhode Island.
Both the civil union bill itself and the change made to it yesterday could seriously jeopardize that potential. Should the civil unions bill become law and then be challenged by a married couple, the courts could look to the bill and this change as evidence of the legislature’s intentions. In other words, if it looks like the legislature specifically did not want to recognize marriages, the courts may be inclined to follow suit.
While civil unions seemingly afford the same protections as marriage on paper, they do not live up to “separate but equal” in reality, as a review commission in New Jersey found. In the case of Rhode Island, not only would they not live up to the marriage equality a significant majority support, they could very well endanger the expansion of marriage equality in the future.