Rhode Island Legislature Passes Flawed Civil Unions Bill

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The Rhode Island legislature has passed a civil unions bill and sent it to the state’s governor for his signature. Governor Chafee has indicated that he will sign the bill even though it is opposed by LGBT rights organizations.

The opposition to the bill stems from its protections for religious organizations. Here is the pertinent language from the bill:

15-3.1-5. Conscience and religious organizations protected. – (a) Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, no religious or denominational organization, no organization operated for charitable or educational purpose which is supervised or controlled by or in connection with a religious organization, and no individual employed by any of the foregoing organizations, while acting in the scope of that employment, shall be required:

(1) To provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges for a purpose related to the solemnization, certification, or celebration of any civil union; or

(2) To solemnize or certify any civil union; or

(3) To treat as valid any civil union;

if such providing, solemnizing, certifying, or treating as valid would cause such organizations or individuals to violate their sincerely held religious belief.

The first two provisions are not uncommon in bills extending the right to marry to same-sex couples or creating civil unions or domestic partnerships. The third, however, is not typical. In essence, even though parties to a civil union nominally have all of the “rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities” associated with marriage in Rhode Island, the reality is that, under this third provision, religious organizations will, based on “sincerely held religious belief,” be able to decide that civil union partners really shouldn’t get the benefits or protections promised by the state. This goes entirely too far, in my opinion.

Unlike Katherine Franke, I view marriage-equivalents, whether denominated civil unions or domestic partnerships, as a form of second class status. There is no greater freedom to arrange your legal relationship to your spouse through a civil union or a domestic partnership that provides all of the rights and obligations of marriage than there is through a marriage. It is still one-size-fits-all, because the only difference between the two relationships is the name. But, in the case of Rhode Island, even full second-class status is denied to same-sex couples by essentially giving religious organizations a veto power over the state’s civil recognition of a couple’s relationship.

The LGBT rights organizations are correct in urging Governor Chafee to reject this bill.

-Tony Infanti

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