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July 15, 2011

Governor signs Rhode Island civil unions into law

Providence, R.I.--Gov. Lincoln Chaffee on July 2 signed his state’s civil union bill into law, acknowledging that it was only a step toward full marriage equality.

LGBT advocates had urged Chaffee to veto the bill, both because it was for civil union and not full same-sex marriage, and also because it contains one of the broadest religious exemptions seen in such legislation.

A full marriage bill was proposed this year in the state House, but openly gay Speaker Gordon D. Fox withdrew it in April after he said there were not enough votes for it to pass. Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed opposes marriage. Both chambers are controlled by Democrats.

Fox supported a civil union bill that was introduced instead, and it passed June 29.

Chaffee, in a letter to the House of Representatives that accompanied his signature on the bill, noted, “Although this measure is a step forward, it fails to fully achieve those goals in its present form. First, it fails to extend full marriage equality to all Rhode Islanders, a civil right that I strongly support and urged the general assembly to enact.”

“I believe that it is unfair to treat the relationships of same-sex couples differently than the relationships of heterosexual couples under the law and that such differential treatment serves no rational governmental purpose,” he continued, before addressing the religious carve-outs.

“Second, I believe that one of the bill’s religious exemptions is too broad. Many states provide reasonable exemptions for religious organizations in connection with the celebration of marriage and civil unions for same-sex couples . . . However, under [another section of the bill], no religious organization or its employees may be required ‘to treat as valid any civil union.’ This section provides a religious exemption of unparalleled and alarming scope. Religious organizations operate hospitals, cemeteries, schools and community centers. As drafted, the bill gives these institutions and their employees the choice of refusing to recognize civil unions.”

“This extraordinary exemption eviscerates the important rights that enacting a civil union law was meant to guarantee for same-sex couples in the first place,” he concludes.

The law took effect on Tuesday, July 5, the first business day after Chaffee signed the bill.

Aaron Coutu and Ray Daignault III, of Burrillville, are believed to be the first couple to get a civil union license on July 5. The 13-year couple were joined on July 9, a week after the governor signed the bill into law.

Rhode Island joins eight other states with civil union or domestic partner laws that grant all the state rights and responsibilities of marriage. Three additional states have limited domestic partnerships, and six more plus D.C. have full marriage.

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