Rhode Island House Approves Civil Unions, But With Restrictions

Yesterday, the Rhode Island House approved a bill legalizing civil unions with a 62-11 vote.

The Rhode Island Senate will now vote on the bill. Most news stories about this aren’t concerned about its chances there or on the governor’s desk, so it is hard to tell what the odds are that civil unions will actually become available. The Advocate reports that the Senate leader supports the bill, and a 62-11 vote in the House is clearly across party lines, so maybe it will pass.

Unfortunately, a very restrictive religious exemption was included in the bill. Gay and Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a New England LGBT rights organization, has come out against the bill.

“The religious exemption amendment goes much further in allowing religious charitable and educational organizations – such as social service providers, hospitals, and educational institutions – to treat legal civil unions, authorized under Rhode Island law, as invalid for any purpose,” GLAD wrote in a news release today.

Openly gay Rep. Frank Ferri told the Providence Journal: “I believe that it is a step forward… 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.”

If it does turn into law, then Rhode Island would be the fourth state to enact civil unions, behind Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey. Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Ferri, have made it clear this is just a step along the way toward total equality. They hope to make Rhode Island join the five U.S. states that have legalized gay marriage.

And on the federal front, things look much better for gay marriage than they did a few years ago. Obama’s refusal to defend DOMA in a federal court a few months ago is a big step forward. U.S. Rep Barney Frank thinks the president might take things even further: “This is just my intuition, but I think the President will be supportive of marriage in the states that offer it before the 2012 election,” Frank said.

That’s a pretty qualified statement, but it would be much better than Obama’s stance on marriage equality in 2008 and would at least silence a few critics. Maybe it could pave the way for same-sex marriage in states like Rhode Island, the ones on the brink  of equality.

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Sarah lives in Chicago with her partner and her big white Great Dane. She is a lawyer by day and a beer brewer/bread baker/knitter by night. She & her partner are currently learning how to grow their own food, and eventually they hope to move to a small farm outside the city. In 2009-2010, before jetting off to law school, Sarah was Autostraddle's Managing Editor.

Sarah has written 127 articles for us.


  1. Go Rhode Island, the smallest of states!

    Also, I think someone should make a sign for the next vote saying “WE’RE HEAH, WE’RE QUEEAH, WE’RE RHODE ISLANDUHS.”

    • I want that on a t shirt! Maybe I can get the printing of the t shirts sponsored by Dels or Eclipse coffee syrup?

  2. The so-called “religious exemption” added to this bill as an amendment is so overbroad that it is toxic – it actually would roll back rights already in existence in Rhode Island! Not just churches, but hospitals and other religious-affiliated institutions, some pf which get state funding, would be allowed to not recognize civil unions for any purpose – not for spousal health benefits, not for visitation, not for adoptions, not for anything.

    The bill is toxic – GLAD just came out against it!

  3. As a native RI’er, I’m estatic. Not least of which because I could now be the flower girl in at least three weddings.

  4. As a Rhode Islander, I am disgusted that my elected officials just leagalized discrimination. This makes the lesbian and gay community second class citizens. We should not settle for anything less than marriage equality! Seperate but equal should only be for eyebrows.

    • as far as the civil unions vs. marriage argument goes, I feel like this is a real stepping stone towards gaining marriage rights. rome wasn’t built in a day, as some romans said.

      • However, there are some pretty good arguments upthread that this actually *is* a step back…

        • Any step that actually legally recognizes civil unions to me is a step forward. Anyone is free to disagree with that, but to me, that recognition is better than nothing and it’s something to work from.

          • What about the allegations that it actually rolls back rights that already existed?

  5. Read it carefully. It seems to say those charitable associations associated with religion are exempted. I think this is a good start, compared to nothing at all. The marriage bill would not have made it through the senate. In two years, a bill will pass to upgrade it to marriage anyway. Consider; Same sex marriage would not be legal in Vermont if not for civil unions. There’s also danger of moving too fast, like in Maine, where it was repealed by the people before it took effect. Slow and steady might suck, but it will get us there.

  6. That is, of course, assuming the state senate takes it up and passes it. Where’s the news on when THAT will happen?

  7. I went from being forced to ride in the back of the bus to being allowed to ride in the middle. Just not good enough.

Comments are closed.