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Rhode Island House approves civil unions

For David Olsen and Leonard Flood, Thursday’s vote by the Rhode Island House of Representatives will not bring equality, but it could be a step toward some tangible benefits — more affordable health coverage for Flood, fewer legal hurdles as they plan for the future, and perhaps, greater acceptance. The couple, who married in Massachusetts last fall, are among those who see the 62-to-11 House vote as a victory.

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

24th May 2011 05:13

Alessia Valenza | ILGA North America

“Marriage equality is our number-one priority, but we’ll take the civil unions bill,” said Olsen, 57, who is treasurer for the City of Warwick. “What I would be disappointed in is if nothing passed.”

The civil-unions bill — opposed by hundreds who came out to testify last week and thousands, according to one lawmaker’s count, who signed petitions — did indeed pass in the House, with a vote that cut across party lines, even as it left lawmakers at odds over where the issue goes from here and what people in Rhode Island really want.

Supporters called the vote a historic victory, one that provides important rights to same-sex couples despite falling short of full marriage equality.

“I believe that it is a step forward,” said Rep. Frank Ferri, D-Warwick, who is openly gay and has long championed the same-sex marriage issue. “There are many couples that need these rights and, today, they know now when they go to the hospital, when they go to a nursing home, their property is protected, they have rights that they didn’t have — as soon as the Senate passes it and the governor signs it.”

“We’re creating a second-class citizenship,” he added, “but this doesn’t end the fight.”

Rep. Peter J. Petrarca, D-Lincoln, who sponsored House bill 6103, called the vote “a great result,” one that could lead to more debate next year on the issue of same-sex marriage.

But while the bill passed with overwhelming support, there were hints that a future debate on same-sex marriage could be more contentious. The most visible indication came from Rep. Arthur J. Corvese, D-North Providence, who sponsored a floor amendment that would have added language to Petrarca’s bill, specifying that marriage is “between one man and one woman,” “is not a creature of statute” and is a “social institution with roots” that are “older than the Bill of Rights.”

“There has been unspoken agreement … that marriage is between one man and one woman,” Corvese said. “If that were not the case, gay marriage would be before us, and not civil unions.”

Lawmakers never voted on his amendment. Rep. Karen MacBeth, D-Cumberland, interrupted Corvese with a point of order, saying the amendment was not germane to Petrarca’s bill, and House Speaker Gordon D. Fox agreed. Corvese protested, but the House voted 48 to 23 to uphold Fox’s ruling.

The most-anticipated floor amendment came from Rep. Arthur Handy, D-Cranston, who sought to revamp the bill so that it would legalize same-sex marriage and provide additional protections for clergy and religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage. As in Corvese’s case, there was no vote. This time, Petrarca raised a point of order, saying the amendment violated House rules that say a floor amendment cannot change an entire bill. Fox agreed.

Another floor amendment, sponsored by Rep. Doreen M. Costa, R-North Kingstown, would have put the issue before voters as a nonbinding referendum, but House members rejected the amendment 59 to 14.

The focus now shifts to the Senate, where Petrarca’s bill has support from Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, a spokesman said on Thursday.

Christopher Plante, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage’s Rhode Island chapter, said the bill, despite an amendment that did pass Thursday, still does not go far enough to protect “the religious beliefs” of “individuals, professionals and business people.”

Echoing statements he and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence have made before, he also said the bill “does nothing to protect marriage from the inevitable lawsuits that will attempt to legalize homosexual marriage through judicial decree.”

Three states — Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey — allow civil unions between same-sex couples, affording them the same rights that state law grants to married couples, according to Marriage Equality USA and the National Conference of State Legislatures. A fourth state, Delaware, just adopted a civil-union law that will take effect on Jan. 1, 2012.

Several others recognize “domestic partnerships,” while five have legalized same-sex marriage, as has the District of Columbia, according to the NCSL and Marriage Equality.

The question of what people in Rhode Island want came up several times Thursday. Civil-union supporters said the majority wants to help people in same-sex relationships, despite strong opposition to the bill, evident Thursday by the presence of more than 100 people from the Hispanic Ministerial Association of Rhode Island.

Lawmakers received dozens of letters and more than 1,800 signatures from people opposed to the bill, but they also received letters from people such as Olsen and Flood, who said they believe the bill will “pave the way” toward equality.