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BREAKING NEWS: House Passes Controversial Civil Unions Bill

Friday, May 20, 2011


A controversial civil unions bill that had drawn fire from both same sex marriage opponents and proponents was passed by the full Rhode Island House today by a 62 to 11 margin.

The civil union legislation grants legal rights to same-sex partners without the historical and religious meaning associated with the word “marriage.”

The bill (2011-H 6103aa), which is modeled after laws recently approved in Illinois, Delaware and Hawaii, would grant same-sex couples all of the state rights afforded to married couples in Rhode Island.

The bill's prime sponsor, Representative Peter Petrarca, introduced a bill earlier this year that would have given same-sex couples access to “reciprocal beneficiary agreements.” This bill expands upon the previous legislation by granting all state rights to same-sex couples that go through the legal process of certifying their civil union.

The new legislation defines civil unions as “a legal union between two individuals of the same sex” and gives people certified in such a union “all the rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities” as those of people who are married.

“I am very proud of my colleagues in the House of Representatives for recognizing that this is the right piece of legislation at the right time,” said Representative Petrarca, who supports same-sex marriage. “We have made great progress today in our goal of providing increased rights, benefits and protections for gay and lesbian couples. This bill is a step forward to ensuring equality and improving their quality of life.”

Criticized From Both Sides

Since its introduction, the bill has received criticism from individuals on both sides of the issue. With some gay marriage supporters attacking the legislation as a half-measure, one that writes discrimination into law and indirectly creates a second class of citizens, and certain opponents denouncing the legislation as mere semantic avoidance, and a clear gateway to a future gay marriage bill.

Early in the debate, gay rights advocates made a final attempt to shift the discussion back towards marriage in the form of an amendment proposed by Representative Arthur Handy. The Handy amendment would have changed the language of the bill in such a way that the legislation would have been essentially transformed into a full-fledged gay marriage bill.  The motion failed, as it was ruled in violation of a House rule that forbids an amendment from making such drastic modifications.  Handy contested the ruling, but it was sustained by a House vote of 47-23.

The House also engaged in an extensive debate concerning an amendment that would have sent the issue to a public vote - a conversation which quickly developed into a broader discussion about the philosophy of representative government and the nature of minority rights.  Some attacked the amendment as a political stall tactic, while others adamantly insisted that the question was too big to be decided by so few. Many representatives drew parallels to the historic civil rights struggle of the 1960s, citing the danger of entrusting the majority to protect the rights of a minority. The amendment was ultimately defeated by a vote of 14-59.

The bill now proceeds to the Senate, where Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed feels it will gain wide support. From there it goes to Governor Chafee, who has already expressed his willingness to sign it. 

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