The measure is largely seen as a compromise over failure to garner enough support in the state legislature to pass a marriage equality bill.
The Governor, an independent who supports gay marriage, signed the measure with the promise that it would move Rhode Island closer to the ultimate goal of legalizing gay marriage.
Chafee said he signed the civil unions bill with “reservations” because it “brings tangible rights and benefits to thousands of Rhode Islanders. It also provides a foundation from which we will continue to fight for full marriage equality.”
He had two major criticisms of the civil union bill: that it failed to provide full marriage equality to same-sex couples and that it allowed religious entities to choose to not recognize civil unions.
The new law includes a section that says no religious organization — including some hospitals, cemeteries, schools and community centers — or its employees may be required to treat as valid any civil union, providing a religious exemption “of unparalleled and alarming scope,” Chafee said in a statement.
The new law would, for example, allow religious hospitals refuse a civil union spouse the right to make emergency medical decisions.
Marriage Equality Rhode Island called the measure “flawed.”
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.
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.)