Many expected passing marriage equality for same-sex couples in Rhode Island would be an easy accomplishment this year. Same-sex marriages from neighbors Massachusetts and Connecticut are already legal in the state. Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) indicated he would sign a marriage equality bill. Both the Senate and House of Representatives have Democratic majorities, and an August 2010 poll showed that a clear majority of Rhode Islanders — 59 percent — support marriage equality.
Unfortunately, members of the House Judiciary Committee continue to keep the bill from moving forward. After months without progress, House Speaker Gordon Fox (D) today compromised on his commitment to marriage equality by throwing his support behind a civil unions bill. In a letter to his colleagues, he wrote:
Based on your input, along with the fact that it is now clear to me that there is no realistic chance for passage of the bill in the Senate, I will recommend that the House not move forward with a vote on the marriage equality bill during this legislative session. I will instead support full passage of a civil unions’ bill that grants important and long overdue legal rights to same-sex couples in Rhode Island.
Fox went on to use the Defense of Marriage Act to defend his position, arguing that since DOMA prevents access to federal marriage rights, offering civil unions to Rhode Island same-sex couples would be just as good as full marriage equality. Civil unions, however, do not provide the full benefits and protections of marriage. As the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission concluded (PDF), offering civil unions “invites and encourages unequal treatment of same-sex couples and their children.”
Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) echoed these concerns in a statement this afternoon condemning Fox’s decision. According to Martha Holt, chair of MERI’s board of directors:
Civil unions are unacceptable because they marginalize gay and lesbian couples in very significant ways. The General Assembly will essentially be legalizing a two-class system that subjects thousands of Rhode Island same-sex couples to discrimination. We cannot support legislation that establishes a second class of citizens in Rhode Island.
Fox’s announcement came just two days after the president of MERI, Kathy Kushnir, submitted her resignation. Fox said the new civil union bill is being drafted and should be introduced soon.