Bet You Didn’t Even Notice–Civil Unions Now Legal in Rhode Island

by Beverly A. Pekala on July 5, 2011

While most of the country was enjoying 4th of July festivities and watching the Casey Anthony trial, civil unions quietly became legal in Rhode Island .  On July 2, 2011, the Governor of Rhode Island, independent Lincoln Chafee, signed a civil unions law into effect.  However, passage of the civil unions law is being regarded as bad news– from both sides of the aisle.


You might think that passage of a civil unions law would be a victory for supporters of gay rights, but this one goes down as a defeat, for a couple of reasons. First, it was thought that passage of gay marriage legislation looked good. Both the Governor supported gay marriage as did the speaker of the House, who is openly gay. But Rhode Island is a state populated by many Catholic and elderly voters, and ultimately there wasn’t the support for gay marriage originally thought.


Another reason the civil unions law isn’t being hailed by supporters as a victory is due to the many exemptions the law provides for religious organizations. Under Rhode Island ’s civil unions law, churches are allowed to refuse to perform same-sex ceremonies and religious hospitals can deny same-sex couples the right to see their loved ones when they are ill or make medical decisions for them.  In addition religiously-affiliated hospitals, schools and businesses may refuse to recognize civil unions. The Governor called these exemptions “unparalleled and alarming” but ultimately felt that having at least some type of civil unions law was a step in the right direction. 


Given the exemptions written into the civil unions law and failure to pass gay marriage, you might think the opponents of gay marriage and civil unions would have been pleased, but that hasn’t happened, either. Many opponents are unhappy that civil unions are now recognized at all, and feel that the exemptions provided for churches and other organizations didn’t go far enough.


Four New England states now have same sex marriage, including Massachusetts , Vermont , New Hampshire and Connecticut . Two do not, Rhode Island and Maine . Civil unions are now legal in Delaware , Hawaii , Illinois , New Jersey , and as of last weekend, Rhode Island .

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