Should Same-Sex Couples Settle for A Civil Union?
The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has issued a scathing report on the state’s recently passed civil unions law, calling it "a complete bust."
The primary reasons for this conclusion include broad religious exemptions "that undermine the unions’ value," marriage equality in neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut and 12 years of waiting for nuptials for same-sex couples.
"Rhode Island’s civil union law, enacted over the strong protests of the community it was designed to benefit, has been a fiasco. In the first two months of its enactment, only 14 gay and lesbian couples have taken advantage of the statute to obtain "civil union" status," said the report. "No other state that has passed a law formally recognizing gay and lesbian couples has seen such a paltry and lackluster response to its passage... The lesson is clear: if Rhode Island is serious about recognizing the status of lesbian and gay couples, full marriage equality is the only appropriate response, and one that the General Assembly must take up."
The study compares Rhode Island’s new civil unions law to that of Illinois’, which also took effect this summer. Accounting for population differences, Illinois had 15 times more civil unions in its first month than Rhode Island.
Only 14 same-sex couples in the Ocean State have obtained civil unions in the two months the law has been legal.
Burrillville residents Ray Daignault and Aaron Coutu obtained the state’s first civil union in July. Daignault told EDGE he has no regrets.
"We were ready to do it," Daignault said, noting he and Coutu have been a couple for 13 years. "Everywhere we go we’re getting congratulated by everybody we know."
Coutu added he and Daignault had always wanted to have their union recognized in the Ocean State, even though Rhode Island does not allow marriage for same-sex couples.
"This is something that we have been wanting to do for quite a few years. We decided we didn’t want to go to Massachusetts or Connecticut [to get married,] because we’d just bring it back and it would have no value."
Although many marriage equality activists contend that civil unions relegate gays and lesbians to second-class status Daignault said that has not been his experience.
"Most people and most companies we’ve dealt with have treated (our civil union) like a full marriage," he said. "Like with the car insurance, they treated it like a marriage. We got a discount almost instantly."
Daignault is surprised about the low number of same-sex couples who have obtained civil unions in the state.
"I don’t think people realize the full benefits you have because you have all the rights of a marriage now," he added.
The ACLU report came as no surprise to marriage equality activists in Rhode Island and around the country.
"This report affirms what marriage equality supporters have consistently said: Civil unions, and more specifically Rhode Island’s civil union law, amount to little more than second-class citizenship," said Ray Sullivan, campaign director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island. "It’s no surprise that so few gay and lesbian couples in loving, committed relationships have sought to enter into a civil union."
Sullivan said that MERI would work to repeal what he called the "overly-broad" Corvese amendment; which allows religiously-affiliated hospitals, schools and other institutions to ignore the legal standing of a civil union spouse.
A marriage equality bill was introduced earlier this year in the State House, but gay Speaker Gordon Fox withdrew it in April after he said there were not enough votes for it to pass. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed opposes marriage for gays and lesbians.
Fox supported a civil union bill that was introduced instead, and it passed June 29.
Illinois has been recognizing civil unions for same-sex couples since June 1. Bernard Cherkasov, chief executive officer for Equality Illinois, noted lawmakers intended to provide the same rights and responsibilities of marriage to same-sex couples.
More than 1,600 couples from across Illinois have obtained civil unions licenses-the law allows religious institutions to not recognize or perform them. Cherkasov said there are no plans to push Illinois legislators to pass a marriage equality bill.
Cherkasov said there was "such urgency (in passing this law) that in the very first month civil unions became available, over 1600 couples in every corner of the state rushed out to get their civil union license."
"We’re focused on making sure civil unions are implemented the way lawmakers intended," he said.
Steven Goldstein, chair and CEO of Garden State Equality, had a far different view about New Jersey’s civil unions law that went into effect in Feb. 2007. He described the statute as "the biggest civil rights disaster the state has ever seen."
"It did absolutely nothing to guarantee equality for same-sex couples," explained Goldstein, stressing that same-sex couples are being denied equal treatment. He went on to say that "too many" hospitals and employers in the state are ignoring the law.
"Civil union laws are an affront in themselves for the lack of protection they give to same-sex couples in our society," added Goldstein in response to the Rhode Island ACLU chapter’s report.
Goldstein is optimistic that there are enough votes in the New Jersey Legislature to get a marriage equality bill passed, but Republican Gov. Chris Christie would likely veto it.
Marc Solomon, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry, told EDGE that the Rhode Island report sends a powerful message.
"Gay and lesbian couples in Rhode Island know inequality when they see it, and they obviously do not want to settle for second class status when they can easily drive to Connecticut or Massachusetts and get the full dignity of a marriage license," he said. "It’s time for the Rhode Island legislature to do the right thing and end the exclusion of gay and lesbian couples from marriage."
Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.