The Rhode Island Senate [official website] on Wednesday approved a same-sex civil union bill by a vote of 21-16 [press release]. The bill [2011 - H6103, PDF] is identical to a version of the bill passed in the House of Representatives [official website], and Governor Lincoln Chafee [official website] is expected to sign the bill into law. Modeled after similar legislation in Illinois, Delaware and Hawaii [JURIST reports], the bill defines a civil union as "a legal union between two individuals of the same sex" and affords same-sex couples the same rights and benefits as married couples. The legislation also includes a provision that allows religiously affiliated institutions, such as schools and hospitals, to ignore the legal status of a same-sex union for any reason. The provision has drawn criticism from several gay advocacy groups including Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), Freedom to Marry, and the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) [advocacy websites]. Freedom to Marry and GLAD are two of many groups that signed a joint letter [text] to the governor calling for a veto of the current bill:
We greatly appreciate your strong support for the freedom to marry, and understand that you had previously expressed a willingness to sign a civil union bill as an incremental, if incomplete, step forward. The bill put forth by the legislature, however, would create onerous and discriminatory hurdles for same-sex couples that no other state has ever put in place.The groups also suggested that the provision allowing certain groups to completely disregard the validity civil unions would permit discrimination, particularly with respect to recognizing a person's legal rights.
Governor Chafee, as well as advocacy groups, initially called [NPR report] for the legalization of same-sex marriage [JURIST news archive] but the House did not approve the necessary amendment [JURIST report]. Same-sex marriage continues to be a controversial and divisive issue throughout the US, although a recent poll [materials] suggests support for legalization is growing. New York recently became the nation's most populous state to pass a same-sex marriage bill [JURIST report] while the Minnesota Senate [official website] in May approved a voter referendum [JURIST report] to amend the constitution to ban same-sex marriage. In April, a Montana judge dismissed a lawsuit [JURIST report] that had called for the state to provide legal status to same-sex relationships. Also in April, the Indiana Senate [official website] overwhelmingly approved [JURIST report] an amendment to the state constitution that would ban same-sex marriage or any "substantially similar" status, and the Wyoming Senate [official website] in February approved a bill that would void in Wyoming any same-sex marriages and civil unions [JURIST report] performed in other jurisdictions. In addition to being legal in New York, same-sex marriage is currently legal in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and Washington, DC [JURIST reports].