Last night the Rhode Island Senate passed a really problematic Civil Union bill. If you believe that a successful compromise is one that leaves everyone disapponted, it really hit the mark. The bill includes “religious exemption” language that might well set LGBT rights back 15 years in the Biggest Little, allowing religious institutions and individuals with “sincerely held beliefs” to ignore the very relationship status it creates. And because it’s so broad and sweeping, it may allow people to ignore the civil rights laws passed 15 years ago.
I’ve not been a supporter of civil unions for many years. Once Massachusetts, our neighbor state, began allowing same-sex couples to marry in 2004, the game changed. To pass a civil union bill now, in New England, less than a week after New York passed marriage equality legislation, makes us look provincial and stupid. To pass one with such wide reaching religious exemptions that it may actually remove queer folks’ rights to housing, hospital visitation, and funeral planning, well, that’s just wrong.
Context is important here. As I wrote in my testimony against civil unions this year, before the horrible Corvese amendment was added, “here in New England it is absurd to pretend that passing civil union legislation is a step forward for our state.”
Let us consider the following facts:
- Our neighboring states of Massachusetts and Connecticut not only provide the full protection of marriage equality, but they recognize marriage as a constitutionally-guaranteed right (established through their courts) for all couples.
- Four of 5 other New England states celebrate the freedom of all couples to marry
- Rhode Island is unique in not having taken the step to either legalize or outlaw marriages between same-sex spouses. Additionally, out-of-state marriages between same-sex couples have largely been recognized.
- The highest courts of both Massachusetts and Connecticut have ruled clearly that civil unions are not only an insufficient remedy to the unconstitutional exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage, but also that they embody a clear message that gay families aren’t good enough.
Let’s not pretend that civil unions are a fresh answer to a new question. This esteemed committee has debated any number of pieces of legislation related to domestic relations for nearly 15 years. Hundreds of Rhode Island same-sex couples are legally married already, and hundreds more have access to marriage just outside our borders. In this context, it is clearly wrong to create a separate legal class for same-sex couples.
With full marriage equality available to same-sex Rhode Island couples just over the border in any direction, I don’t know why anyone would settle for a civil union. Marriage is a much stronger protection, and with the civil union law so tenuous, if I wanted legal recognition of my relationship, I’d head to Massachusetts or Connecticut.
So what’s next? I don’t know. People are talking about the 2012 election cycle, and I think that’s an important consideration. But I also think we need to find a way to demonstrate the harmful impact of this legislation, hopefully one that doesn’t wait until a civilly unionized couple faces religiously motivated denial of their rights. Maybe a “buy-in”, where we encourage queer Rhode Islanders and their allies to spend money in the “equality states” of Massachusetts or Connecticut? Don’t worry, Jef, I’ll give you a ride.