Coming just days after the New York legislature voted to legalize same-sex marriage, Rhode Island state lawmakers on Wednesday voted to approve a bill that would permit civil unions between gay and lesbian couples.
State senators voted 21-16 to endorse the bill, about two hours after it was voted out of committee.
The legislation, which already has passed the state House, allows gay couples to enter into civil unions that offer the same rights and benefits given to married couples under Rhode Island law.
It is now headed to Chafee’s desk for his signature. Ahead of the vote, the independent governor called the legislation an “incremental step” toward allowing gay marriage, which he supports.
The civil unions bill was introduced as a compromise after House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, said gay marriage legislation would not pass the General Assembly this year. Fox, who is openly gay, supports gay marriage but said it couldn’t overcome opposition, particularly in the Senate.
The legislation, which passed overwhelmingly in the state’s lower house on May 19, affords same-sex couples a host of new state tax breaks, health-care benefits and greater ease of inheritance.
But marriage equality advocacy groups say the bill’s overly broad exemptions would allow religious institutions to ignore rights given through civil unions. The measure would, for example, let religious hospitals refuse a civil union spouse the right to make emergency medical decisions.
Marriage Equality Rhode Island called the measure “flawed.”
If signed by the Governor, the law would take effect on July 1, and Rhode Island would become the fifth state to allow civil unions between same-sex couples. Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey already permit same-sex civil unions.
Six states — Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire Connecticut, Iowa, and most recently New York — and the District of Columbia, allow full marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. (The New York law takes effect July 24.)