Rhode Island endorses civil unions for gay couples


In a overwhelming majority the Rhode Island’s House of Representatives on Thursday passed legislation allowing gay couples to enter into civil unions after a last-ditch effort to revive gay marriage legislation failed.

The 62-11 vote sends the measure to the Senate, where legislative leaders predict broad support for civil unions.   The proposal would allow gay couples to enter into civil unions granting all of the state rights given to married couples under Rhode Island law. It was introduced as a compromise after legislative leaders said gay marriage legislation lacked the votes needed to pass this year.

Many supporters of gay marriage said civil unions treat gay couples as second-class citizens. Many lawmakers said they agreed, but said they couldn’t vote against giving gay couples many more rights than they currently receive.

Representative  Frank Ferri, a democrat, is openly gay and said the House endorsement of civil unions was bittersweet.   "Today I’m being asked to choose between equality and rights," he said. "There’s no doubt in my mind that families like mine need these rights."

Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and the District of Columbia now recognize gay marriage. Illinois, New Jersey, Delaware and Hawaii have passed civil union bills similar to the one pending in Rhode Island.

Gay marriage advocates tried unsuccessfully to resurrect the gay marriage legislation during House debate. But their procedural move failed after House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is openly gay, ruled it out of order. A vote to overrule Fox failed 23-47.

Rhode Islanders opposed to civil unions gathered outside the House chamber during the two-hour debate to pray and sing religious songs. Rev. Santos Escobar, a pastor at Cranston’s Abundant Life Church, said lawmakers were defying public opinion.    "They have ignored us," he said. "But we will remember how they voted in the next election."

Critics in the House warned that civil unions would prompt legal challenges designed to legalize gay marriage. Arthur Corvese, a democrat from the North Providence said civil unions were indistinguishable from marriage, and threated a "fundamental building block of society.  If the founding fathers were alive today they would be rolling over in their graves," he said.

A statement that not only lets down the whole Democratic party but also shows a distinct lack of mental ability,  for if they were alive today,  they wouldn’t be in their graves. 

Opponents of civil unions proposed asking voters to weigh in on civil unions. Their request was rejected.

The debate was at times emotional, with lawmakers clashing over political pragmatism, Constitutional rights and personal stories. Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, voted against the bill in the House Judiciary Committee. But Thursday night he told his colleagues compassion made him change his mind.

"I’m a Republican. I’m a conservative. I was a no vote," he said. "If my lord Jesus Christ was here, he would say, what you do to the least of my people you do to me… I don’t have that right."

The debate now moves to the Senate, which had been seen as unlikely to support gay marriage. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, has opposed gay marriage but supports the civil union bill and predicts it will win broad support.

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