Yesterday, the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee approved a civil unions bill that marriage equality advocates oppose, but not before making a subtle revision. In regards to reciprocity (recognizing unions from other states and countries), the language that allowed for recognizing “substantially similar legal relationships” was removed. It now reads:
15-3.1-8. Reciprocity. — A civil union legally entered into in another jurisdiction, shall be recognized in Rhode Island as a civil union; provided, that the relationship meets the eligibility requirements of this chapter.
This means that the bill would only recognize “civil unions” from other states, leaving the question of same-sex marriages and domestic partnerships up in the air, and possibly severely at risk.
Currently, the status of imported same-sex marriages in Rhode Island is considered inconsistently on a case-by-case basis. In 2007, Attorney General Patrick Lynch released a legal opinion stating that the state did not explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage and so should recognize such marriages performed elsewhere. That same year, however, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that a same-sex couple could not get a divorce in the state. Until the legislature or courts specifically weigh in on the matter, same-sex couples married elsewhere face some uncertainty, but certainly some potential in Rhode Island.
Both the civil union bill itself and the change made to it yesterday could seriously jeopardize that potential. Should the civil unions bill become law and then be challenged by a married couple, the courts could look to the bill and this change as evidence of the legislature’s intentions. In other words, if it looks like the legislature specifically did not want to recognize marriages, the courts may be inclined to follow suit.
While civil unions seemingly afford the same protections as marriage on paper, they do not live up to “separate but equal” in reality, as a review commission in New Jersey found. In the case of Rhode Island, not only would they not live up to the marriage equality a significant majority support, they could very well endanger the expansion of marriage equality in the future.