PROVIDENCE, R.I. - The Rhode Island state Senate on Wednesday approved a bill to legalize same-sex civil unions. The measure already passed the state House, and Gov. Lincoln Chafee is expected to sign the bill. It will make Rhode Island the fifth state to recognize same-sex civil unions, following Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey and Delaware.
The action is somewhat anti-climactic after New York's legalization of same-sex marriage just last week, the sixth state to do so. In addition to New York same-sex marriage is now recognized by Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut, as well as the District of Columbia.
But in Rhode Island, House Speaker Gordon Fox, an openly gay Providence Democrat who supports marriage rights for same-sex couples, dropped a same-sex marriage bill last month, saying there were not enough votes to pass it.
The bill passed by the state Senate on a 21-16 vote yesterday allows gay couples to enter into civil unions that offer the same "rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities" given to married couples under Rhode Island law.
However it contains a controversial amendment stating that religious organizations and their employees "shall not be required to" provide services for civil-union ceremonies or "treat as valid any civil union."
State Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, a Democrat who opposes same-sex marriage but supported the civil unions bill, called the bill "a compromise" and "a vote for equality."
But before the Senate vote, local and national marriage equality advocacy groups sent a letter to the governor urging him to veto the bill if it included the amendment.
The exemptions provided in the amendment "would create onerous and discriminatory hurdles for same-sex couples that no other state has ever put in place," said the letter. It was signed by Marriage Equality Rhode Island along with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Human Rights Campaign, Freedom to Marry, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Family Equality Council, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Other states, most recently New York, have included exemptions for religious institutions in their marriage equality laws. But Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Marriage Equality Rhode Island, said his group believes the language in Rhode Island's bill is far more discriminatory. "It allows private organizations to pro-actively discriminate against gay and lesbian couples," he said.
For example, Sullivan said, because of the way the bill is written, an emergency room at a religiously affiliated hospital could keep a civil union spouse out of the treatment area, barring the spouse from participating in treatment decisions. Likewise, a human resources clerk at a religiously affiliated college could deny an employee family medical leave to care for a civil union spouse.
Meanwhile, anti-gay-marriage groups in Rhode Island strongly oppose the bill, calling it a step toward same-sex marriage.
Gov. Chafee, an independent who supports legalizing same-sex marriage, has said he will probably sign the bill. Chafee told the Providence Journal he opposes the exemptions included in the bill but added, "Sometimes you don't get it all."
"Rhode Island, by our demographics, it's a difficult state to make some of these changes," he said. "Changes come a little slow when you have a high elderly population, the highest Roman Catholic state in the country. It's just demographic factors."
Photo: Rhode Island lawmakers speak on behalf of marriage equality legislation on the steps of the Statehouse in Providence last month. Marriage Equality Rhode Island