RI Senate passes civil unions bill

Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The Rhode Island Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions, a measure that Gov. Lincoln Chafee says he's inclined to sign.

State senators voted 21-16 to endorse the bill, about two hours after it was voted out of committee. The legislation, which already has passed the state House, allows gay couples to enter into civil unions that offer the same rights and benefits given to married couples under Rhode Island law.

It is now headed to Chafee's desk for his signature. Ahead of the vote, the governor called the legislation an "incremental step" toward allowing gay marriage, which he supports.

Earlier this month, New York became the sixth state to allow gay marriage, joining Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut, as well as the District of Columbia. Several other states offer civil unions or domestic partnerships instead. Illinois, Delaware and Hawaii enacted civil unions this year.

Several gay marriage advocacy groups have urged Chafee to veto the bill because of what they call overly broad exemptions that would allow religious institutions to ignore rights given through civil unions. The measure would, for instance, let religious hospitals refuse a civil union spouse the right to make emergency medical decisions.

Those groups and some state senators on the floor Wednesday have also said civil unions don't go nearly far enough and treat gay couples as second-class citizens.

Meanwhile, groups opposed to gay marriage called civil unions a dangerous stepping stone to full gay marriage rights. Capitol police hauled off one activist opposed to the bill in handcuffs after he held up a sign condemning it during floor debate on the state budget and shouted slogans from the gallery ahead of the vote on civil unions.

The bill was introduced as a compromise after House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, said gay marriage legislation would not pass the General Assembly this year. Fox, who is openly gay, supports gay marriage but said it couldn't overcome opposition, particularly in the Senate. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, is a notable opponent.

But Paiva Weed spoke in favor of civil unions on Wednesday, calling it a "historic day" for Rhode Island.

"We have moved one step in the right direction" to ensure Rhode Islanders have equal rights under the law, she said.

"The easiest vote today would have been to vote no because some of the advocates and some of the opponents ... could be told that individuals were voting no to keep one side or the other happy," she said. "Rather, we're bringing a bill of this magnitude to the floor."

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