Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee has signed a bill allowing civil unions for same-sex couples.
The law is seen as a compromise that grants new rights for gays and lesbians but stops short of allowing same-sex marriages.
Rhode Island joins four other states that offer civil unions to their residents — New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii, and Delaware. In New England, Maine is now the only state that does not allow either same-sex marriages or civil unions.
“I am signing this bill because I believe that same sex couples should have the same legal rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities as heterosexual couples,” Chafee said in a statement after he signed the legislation Saturday.
In his statement, Chafee, a political independent, indicated he found the civil-union compromise a disappointment.
“Although this measure is a step forward, it fails to fully achieve those goals in its present form,” Chafee said. “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. Second, I believe that one of the bill’s religious exemptions is too broad.”
Religious exemptions were a big part of the compromise legislation. The bill Chafee signed provides that certain institutions with religious affiliations, such as some hospitals, do not have to honor civil unions for their patients.
Also, the federal government does not recognize civil unions of any state. Other states that do not honor any type of same-sex unions do not have to recognize Rhode Island’s civil unions.
Nevertheless, for backers of the legislation, the Rhode Island bill was a move in the right direction.
“We have made great progress in our goal of providing increased rights, benefits and protections for gay and lesbian couples,” Rep. Peter J. Petrarca, D-Lincoln, the bill’s sponsor, told the Associated Press last week. “This bill is a step forward to ensuring equality and improving their quality of life.”
For Rhode Islanders, civil unions will allow couples to receive many of the same privileges as married couples under the law.
Despite the progress for same-sex couples, there was a strong contingency of gay-rights activists unhappy with the legislation. They felt the bill approved of “separate but equal” status for same-sex couples and didn’t take the full step of bringing equality to marriage.
These supporters of full marriage rights for same-sex couples say they plan to continue their fight beyond just civil unions.
“We’ll be back tomorrow and the next day and however long it takes for Rhode Islanders to be treated equally under the law,” said Andrew Sullivan in an AP interview. Sullivan is a campaign director with Marriage Equality Rhode Island.
On the other end of the spectrum, opponents of gay marriage and civil unions were pleased only with the religious exemption in the bill. Chris Plante, the executive director of the National Organization for Marriage — Rhode Island, called the civil unions bill “a disappointing and dangerous day for marriage in Rhode Island.”
Regardless of any disagreements, same-sex couples in Rhode Island are now permitted to enter into civil unions.
The passage of the civil union legislation in Rhode Island comes on the heels of a very public fight for same-sex marriage in New York. On June 24, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation into law that will make same-sex marriage legal as of mid-July.