RI Civil Unions Compromise Wins Little Support
Civil unions may make for good legislative compromise in Rhode Island’s gay marriage debate, but the proposal won nothing but scorn during a public hearing at the Statehouse on Wednesday.
Gay marriage supporters told lawmakers that civil unions treat gay couples as second-class citizens. Opponents said the bill creates an easy steppingstone to full marriage rights for same-sex couples.
The bill would allow a gay couple to form a civil union granting all of the rights and benefits given to married couples under Rhode Island law.
The proposal was introduced after legislative leaders said gay marriage legislation lacked the votes to pass this year. But lawmakers searching for common ground in the General Assembly have so far only united both sides of the contentious gay marriage debate.
Neither side likes civil unions, they told lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee, but for very different reasons.
"This is a cop-out," said Joseph Cavanagh, a Providence attorney and member of the National Organization for Marriage-Rhode Island. "It totally avoids the issue."
"This creates a separate status only for gay people to send a message that gay people are not worthy of the protections marriage provides," said Karen Loewy, an attorney with Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders.
The sponsor of the civil union bill said both sides need to understand political reality.
"Both sides are acting like schoolchildren," said Rep. Peter Petrarca, D-Lincoln. "We either do nothing and let this thing continue to fester, or give same-sex couples the rights they deserve."
Petrarca said he believes many gay marriage supporters will quietly back the civil union bill, if only because gay marriage won’t pass this year.
Still, some lawmakers say they’re wary of supporting a compromise that seems to lack public support. Rep. Doreen Costa, R-North Kingstown, said she’s received more than 300 emails and messages from residents on the civil union bill. Only two were in support.
"I think civil unions are just a no-win situation," she said.
The bill was filed after House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, said gay marriage legislation would not pass the General Assembly this year. Fox, who is openly gay, supports gay marriage but said it couldn’t overcome opposition, particularly in the Senate where Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, is a notable opponent. Paiva Weed has said she supports civil unions.
The civil union bill borrows heavily from similar laws recently passed in in Illinois, Delaware, Hawaii and New Jersey, as well as Rhode Island’s existing marriage law. Five states now recognize gay marriage and several more have enacted some form of civil union law.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent who has urged lawmakers to pass a gay marriage bill, has said he would sign the civil union measure.
A leading gay marriage advocacy group, Marriage Equality Rhode Island, is working to resurrect the gay marriage bill. Ray Sullivan, MERI’s campaign director, said he hopes the House will revise the civil union bill into a marriage bill when the legislation is debated on the House floor.
The House Judiciary Committee could vote as early as next week on whether to send the measure to the full House, according to Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence and the committee’s chairwoman.