Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee [official website] on Saturday signed into law a bill [H6103, PDF] that legalizes same-sex civil unions in the state. The bill effectively adds a "Civil Unions" chapter to the Rhode Island General Laws section governing domestic relations, affording same-sex couples many of the same rights and benefits available to married couples. The bill is modeled on similar legislation in Illinois, Delaware and Hawaii [JURIST reports], and defines a civil union as "a legal union between two individuals of the same sex" who are consenting adults not party to a separate civil union or marriage. However, the civil unions bill passed with an amendment granting recognition exceptions to organizations that are or are connected to religious or denominational organizations. Pro-equality groups like Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), Freedom to Marry and the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) [advocacy websites] have condemned the law entirely because of this provision, which essentially allows many organizations to ignore a legally formed civil union. MERI Board Chair Martha Holt issued a statement after the bill passed the state Senate [JURIST report] earlier this week:
We are extremely disappointed that the Senate brazenly ignored the commonsense objections raised by equality and civil rights leaders here and across the country. This civil union bill contains dangerous and discriminatory language that, without question, will cause significant harm to countless gay and lesbian couples in loving, committed relationships, and we will continue to fight it through whatever means are necessary. Furthermore, we renew our request that the governor veto this hurtful and ill conceived bill. To not do so would be a slap in the face to the gay and lesbian community, and every Rhode Islander who cares about equal rights and protections for all our state's citizens.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].