Rhode Island Passes Civil Unions and Nobody’s Happy About It

While everybody was celebrating the victory for same-sex marriage in New York, elsewhere on the East Coast, Rhode Island was having its own fight over gays and their unions. A very different fight, in fact.

On July 2nd, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee signed a bill into law that would give queer Rhode Islanders civil unionsnot marriage — and also allow some pretty big exemptions for religious organizations who don’t want to honor gay unions. It’s a huge disappointment, as the situation had initially looked great for gays in Rhode Island. Not only was Governor Chafee on their side, but the speaker of the House, Gordon Fox, is openly gay himself.

One of the big problems came from State Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, a Democrat who opposed equal marriage but liked the idea of civil unions. It eventually became clear that marriage equality did not have enough support and civil unions was a more “realistic goal.” Which is sad enough on its own, but it doesn’t end there.

House Representative Arthur J. Corvese drafted an amendment, which bears his name, allowing religiously-affiliated hospitals, schools and businesses to refuse to recognize civil unions at all. While churches are allowed to refuse to perform same-sex ceremonies under the First Amendment, the Corvese Amendment goes way further than that. Thanks to it, religious hospitals could deny same-sex couples the right to see their loved ones when they are ill or make medical decisions for them! In other words, the very rights the civil union bill was meant to protect. The language remained in the bill that was signed by Governor Chafee, who has said that amendment “eviscerates the important rights that enacting a civil union law was meant to guarantee in the first place.” He has admitted that he signed it “with reservations,” seeing the measure as “a step forward” but one that doesn’t go far enough.

While LGBT rights supporters were not happy with the civil unions “compromise” to begin with, the Corvese Amendment has caused many to outright oppose the bill. On June 27th, a group of nine civil rights groups drafted a letter to Chafee, Fox and Paiva Weed expressing their disapproval. The signatories included not only state-specific groups like Marriage Equality Rhode Island, but also national equal rights organizations, including the ACLU, The Family Equality Council, Freedom to Marry, Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, The Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. 14 pro-equality legislators also sent a letter voicing their disapproval, stating: “This bill legalizes discrimination against the very protections it creates, and allows groups with even tenuous connections to religious denominations to ignore very specific laws as they relate to same-sex couples.”

Marc Solomon, the national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, said: “This flawed civil union bill undermines a crucial principle that Rhode Island has always stood for – respecting the separation of church and state.” (For those not in-the-know, Rhode Island was specifically founded as a haven for religious freedom by Roger Williams, who got kicked out of Puritan Massachusetts in 1635.)

photo via marriageequalityri.org

What’s more, opponents of marriage equality aren’t happy with this bill either! Rhode Island is one of the most Catholic states in the country, and the Catholic Church disapproves of civil unions as well as same-sex marriage. At the Rhode Island Catholic, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of the Diocese of Providence said: “The concept of civil unions is a social experiment that promotes an immoral lifestyle, is a mockery of the institution of marriage as designed by God, undermines the well-being of our families, and poses a threat to religious liberty.” In his statement, he also bars gay Catholics in Rhode Island from entering civil unions. Elsewhere on the anti-gay front, Christopher Plainte, executive director of the Rhode Island branch of the National Organization for Marriage, has said that “this is a disappointing and dangerous day for marriage in Rhode Island” and that he thinks the Corvese Amendment did not go far enough.

Pretty much the only person who seems happy about this result is Paiva Weed, who calls it “a historic day” for Rhode Island . Some equal-marriage proponents feel the bill is better than nothing, with openly-gay State Senator Donna Nesselbrush saying, “Gay people can’t give up the rights of civil unions to spite their face.” Still, Nesselbrush voted against the bill, saying that “from a conscience point of view, I couldn’t press the green button and vote for that.”

It’s worth noting that New York’s equal marriage law was passed by a majority Republican Senate — which, as Andrew Sullivan noted at The Daily Beast, is part of what made it so historic. Yet in Rhode Island, not only Paiva Weed but also Corvese are Democrats, while pro-equality Governor Chafee is an independent. Paiva Weed’s opposition to full marriage equality may be due to her Catholic religious beliefs rather than political posturing, but it’s hard not to see a pattern developing — with so many leading Democrats, from Obama to Hillary Clinton, refusing to budge on marriage equality, despite the fact that the majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage. I just don’t see how this strategy will help them going into 2012, as marriage equality is sure to be an issue among liberal voters. And with most anti-equality organizations also opposed to civil unions, it’s debatable how many votes they will win from their “in-between” stance.

The United States has a long history of compromise decisions. What historians often fail to mention, though, is how many of those “tough compromises” came at the cost of minorities’ civil rights, from counting slaves as three-fifths of a person to the end of Reconstruction. The Rhode Island civil union law, in its own small way, continues that not-so-proud tradition.

If you’re in Rhode Island, let Governor Chafee know how disappointing this law is (via the HRC).

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Rose is a 25-year-old Detroit native currently living in Austin, TX, where she is working on her Ph.D. in musicology. Besides Autostraddle, she works as a streaming reviewer for Anime News Network.

Rose has written 69 articles for us.


  1. It’s also interesting to note that Paiva-Weed received a campaign donation from NOM. I never thought I would see the day that my beloved State would legalize discrimination.

  2. Living here in RI my whole life I would never expect to see such discrimination and it’s not just with Paiva Weed, either she just is the ugly head of the beast, the house and openly gay House speaker Gordon Fox also let the bill pass through the house and make its way to the senate.

    Hopefully this video will make your day a little better even with the losses her in RI (NSFW per language)


  3. I still don’t see what the big difference is between marriage & civil unions, esp if both groups get the same legal rights…?

    • They don’t. Aside from the whole “separate but equal” fallacy, civil unions do not provide the same federal benefits as marriage.

    • And with this one, the real issue is not even just the fact that it’s not marriage, but also all the ridiculous loopholes for religious groups who don’t want to honor civil unions. If a civil-unioned couple goes to a Catholic hospital, for example, they can refuse to let one partner see the other and then their union is basically meaningless.

    • Living here in Massachusetts, I can tell you from my own experience how powerful the words “married” and “wedding” are for breaking down cultural barriers. Yes, civil unions may give the same state-based legal rights as marriage (in some states, not including RI), but marriage is a cultural concept as well as a legal one. When you tell someone who may not think they know any gay people that you’re getting married, they know what to do with that. They ask about dresses and plans and dates and whether it’ll be a church wedding. They understand that, it’s not scary.

      Instead, if you’re getting a civil union, what’s the verb? We’re getting civilized? Unionized? Civilly united? People don’t know what to do with that. And that’s huge in terms of people recognizing our rights and our existence. It may be semantics, but semantics are actually really really important in terms of how we conceptualize our world.

  4. Thank you for the update – I haven’t seen much about this in the news elsewhere.

  5. “The concept of civil unions is a social experiment that promotes an immoral lifestyle, is a mockery of the institution of marriage as designed by God, undermines the well-being of our families, and poses a threat to religious liberty.”

    uh… they do know that without the paper from the government that is a civil union, their in-church ceremony is just a ceremony, right? with no legal binding? and no rights? ughh.

    • I’d say that falls under “mockery of the institution of marriage as designed by God”. Although I dispise that quote, I’m glad there is one sentence that can wrap around the entire reason for all homophobia in the world. Apparently, we just want to play house and make fun of the heteros.

      The battle for equal rights reminds me of being a kid in the playground of an elementary school. I just wanna pull the pigtails of the church and run away screaming.

      • I keep wondering why the adults are letting the church play so aggressively on the state’s playground in the first place. Aren’t their playgrounds supposed to be separate?

        • Yes! Like this, “This flawed civil union bill undermines a crucial principle that Rhode Island has always stood for – respecting the separation of church and state.”

          That’s always been a vital part of our argument, and it makes no sense to me when the comeback is somehow religiously fueled. THAT’S THE POINT. You take the swings, I’ll take the monkey bars.

  6. Sad RI’er here…
    Gordon Fox pulled the whole “good enough for now” shit, which only hurts us. Maybe without the religious loopholes I would say it’s a step in the right direction, but I just can’t yet.

    Don’t be fooled by this being such a democratic state. The Catholic far outweighs the Dem here. Always has.

  7. I think what really bothers me (besides the obvious law itself) is the lack of media about the issues with the law. I’m by no means an expert in what’s been reported and what hasn’t, but I work for my local news station, I know we just ran a wire story, probably ABC or CNN, so something used nationally on local stations, and it didn’t say a word about any of the issues, just yay civil unions. Half-assed coverage bothers me and doesn’t help.

    • Wholeheartedly agree! Our media’s decision on what news gets air time and what doesn’t is nearly always unsettling.

  8. Are there a lot of religiously affiliated hospitals? I know a lot of hospitals are called Saint something, but I never really thought of religious groups as having a say in things or understood how that works…

    • One of our largest hospitals here is Our Lady of Fatima. In Rhode Island, pretty much everything is conected to the catholic church, one way or another.

      • I’m from RI too. And if the Catholic church wasn’t enough to come up against on gay marriage then throw in the Italian mob and you’ve really got an uphill battle to fight. Yet I still hold out hope for my little home state…

    • There are a lot of Catholic hospitals, in many places the only hospital in the area is a Catholic hospital.

  9. Well, Representative Frank Ferri is supposed to be proposing legislation to repeal the Corvese Amendment during the next legislative session. So that’s a thing.

  10. Roger Williams would have some harsh words to say about this move by his former colony.

    “Many consider toleration to be synonymous with religious liberty. It isn’t. Toleration is the allowance of that which is not wholly approved.

    If the right to tolerate exists in man, then [also] the right to prohibit, and to dictate to the conscience must also exist with it, and thus toleration becomes merely another name for oppression.”

  11. i’m wondering if the myriad religious exemptions include the crappy “conscience clause,” where basically someone can say it’s against their religious beliefs to accommodate or recognize gay people and their relationships for pretty much any and all reasons or situations. it really does legalize discrimination and make things MUCH worse, if so.

    rhode island is an interesting little state. you’d think it would be liberal with all those dems, but they are mostly catholic democrats. and then there’s the mob. pretty conservative (and,duh,catholic) group as well, and they pretty much run the statehouse.

    this sucks.

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