R.I. House passes civil unions bill

House Speaker Gordon Fox / The Associated Press

In a vote that follows months of wrangling over legalizing gay marriage, Rhode Island’s House of Representatives approved a bill last night that would allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions. The legislation, which passed 62 to 11, now goes to the state Senate.

Sponsored by Rep. Peter Petrarca, D-Lincoln, the bill grants same-sex couples all of the rights afforded married couples under state law, meaning easier access to health care insurance and additional legal protections for many gay and lesbian couples if it becomes law. In the state Senate, civil unions enjoy the support of Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Jamestown and Newport. Paiva Weed’s opposition to gay marriage had been viewed as a major obstacle to its legalization.

Gay marriage supporters were dealt a setback late last month when openly gay Speaker of the House Gordon Fox, D-Providence, announced that he believed gay marriage legislation could not be passed during this session of the General Assembly and shifted his support to civil unions.

While many gay marriage supporters heralded the vote as a step forward for same-sex couples, some criticized the civil unions bill for not going far enough to grant equal treatment.

“While civil unions represent some rights and benefits, they fail to provide the kind of protection and recognition that only marriage can afford,” Marriage Equality Rhode Island, a gay marriage advocacy group, said in a statement after the vote. “Separate laws are never equal laws, as our courts have upheld.”

The Catholic Church also criticized the civil unions bill, but for different reasons. Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin urged lawmakers to reject the bill prior to the vote. “The civil unions legislation itself is objectionable since it serves as a gateway to same-sex marriage, thus guaranteeing that this divisive debate will continue in our State well into the future,” he said in a recent statement.

Two proposed amendments to the legislation highlighted alternatives backed by the opposing sides of the debate. An amendment sponsored by Rep. Arthur Handy, D-Cranston, would have altered the legislation to legalize gay marriage and was supported by gay rights groups. Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence, introduced an amendment to attach language to the bill stipulating that marriage is “between one man and one woman.” Neither amendment was put to a floor vote because lawmakers contended that they both violated House rules.

If Rhode Island’s state legislature passes civil unions legislation, it will join Illinois, New Jersey, Delaware and Hawaii, which currently allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions.

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