May 20, 2011
When Rhode Island’s House of Representatives passed H.6103Aaa last night, it passed the most restrictive religious exemption attached to any civil union or marriage bill in the country, according to Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). The bill’s language on reciprocity also creates arbitrary distinctions between the different forms of spousal protections for same-sex couples, causing continued uncertainty for legally married couples in the state. Beyond the inherent inequalities embodied by a civil union scheme, even the promise of comprehensive protections offered by this bill is seriously undercut by these provisions.
Everyone agrees that religious denominations should not be required to join any two people in any legal relationship – whether marriage or a civil union – that is contrary to their religious teachings. However, 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.
Karen Loewy, Senior Staff Attorney for GLAD, said “This unprecedented exemption means a civil union spouse could be denied the ability to make medical decisions for her spouse in a hospital; it means that a math teacher at a religiously-based school could not get the same health insurance for his legally recognized partner that all other teachers receive. This exemption actually diminishes nondiscrimination protections in public accommodations and employment that Rhode Island employers and institutions have successfully lived with since 1995. It just inflicts gratuitous harm on Rhode Island’s gay and lesbian families.”
In addition, the bill’s silence on the situation of Rhode Island’s many married same-sex couples just perpetuates the inconsistent treatment those couples receive and creates a bizarre double standard between married couples and couples with civil unions. “Because Rhode Island is bordered by marriage states, many same-sex couples here are already married,” said Loewy. “The bill’s silence leaves intact the application of established marriage recognition law to their legal commitments. But it also gives an excuse to employers, government entities, and others who want to ignore their marriages, and provides more protection for couples in civil unions than exist for married couples.”
One such situation, said Loewy, is that of married couples who seek divorce. Civil union spouses would be able to dissolve their unions in Rhode Island, while married couples could not. “This is a seriously flawed bill,” said Loewy. “If it is not fixed in the Senate, there is trouble ahead for Rhode Island’s same-sex couples.”
GLAD remains committed to working for full marriage equality for Rhode Island’s same-sex couples.
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders is New England’s leading legal organization dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, HIV status, and gender identity and expression.