RI lawmakers take another look at civil unions

By David Klepper
Associated Press / June 2, 2011

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PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Tempers flared Thursday as Rhode Island lawmakers held yet another hearing on a proposal to allow gay couples to enter into civil unions.

By now, the arguments from both sides of the gay marriage and civil union debate are well established. Rhode Island lawmakers have held three hearings this year on bills to enact gay marriage or civil unions, and many of those who spoke at the hearing have testified before.

Both sides appear to be growing tired of their opposition.

At Thursday's hearing one senator got into a heated argument with a pastor testifying against civil unions. After another senator criticized the Catholic Church's stance during testimony from a priest, a woman in the audience cried out, "Heretic!"

The proposal would grant gay couples in a civil union all the state rights that are granted to married couples under Rhode Island law. Lawmakers introduced the civil union proposal after determining that gay marriage legislation lacked the votes needed to pass in the Ocean State. Five states now allow same-sex couples to marry.

The House passed the bill last month, and the Senate could vote as early as next week. Senators reviewing the measure were evenly divided Thursday.

Sen. Dawson Hodgson, R-North Kingstown, believes gay couples have the same right to marry and have families as heterosexual couples. "These are Americans like all of us," he said.

Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, said he'll oppose civil unions on religious grounds. "I didn't write the Bible. God does not change."

Almost everyone who spoke at the hearing opposes the civil union proposal but for very different reasons. Gay marriage supporters argued that civil unions would relegate gay couples to second-class status. Martha Holt, chairwoman of the board of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, said her group also opposes a loophole in the bill that would allow religious cemeteries, hospitals and schools to ignore rights given to gay couples in a civil union.

Gay marriage opponents dislike civil unions, too, fearing they could quickly lead to same-sex marriage. They want lawmakers to insert language specifically outlawing gay marriage to prevent lawsuits asking the courts to extend marriage rights to gay couples. Joseph Cavanagh of the National Organization for Marriage-Rhode Island said the purpose of marriage is to create stable families that can produce children.

The bill "does not make it clear to the courts that marriage is special," he said. "Let's protect marriage. Let's protect children."