Rhode Island lawmakers voted Tuesday to allow same-sex and unmarried couples the right to plan the funerals of their late partners, overriding a veto by the governor, who warned it eroded traditional marriage.
The bill passed 67-3 in the House and 31-3 in the Senate, and enjoyed support from several Republican lawmakers in the same party as Gov. Don Carcieri, an adamant opponent of same-sex marriage in a state that does not recognize gay unions.
The new funeral planning rights also apply to unmarried heterosexual couples.
Mark Goldberg, 49, pushed for the legislation after struggling for five weeks to claim the body of his partner of 17 years, Ron Hanby, who committed suicide in October 2008. The state medical examiner would not release Hanby's body to Goldberg because they were not married or relatives, even though the couple had wills and other legal documents attesting to their relationship.
"Not being able to claim his body was certainly something that was beyond belief, was beyond human compassion from anyone," Goldberg said. "There was just no compassion whatsoever from anyone in the state."
Rhode Island and Maine are the only New England states that do not recognize gay marriage. The movement has stalled in Rhode Island partly because of opposition from Roman Catholic church leaders in the most heavily Catholic state in the country. Bills legalizing gay unions have died in Rhode Island's Democratic-dominated Legislature every year since they were first introduced in 1997.
House Speaker William Murphy, D-West Warwick, and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, D-Newport, oppose gay marriage, while Carcieri would almost certainly veto it if it passed.
House Majority Leader Gordon Fox, a Democrat who is gay, said the bill was about helping the bereaved, not changing the definition of marriage.
"You're dealing with tragedy, one of the worst events in human life as we know it," Fox said, asking his fellow lawmakers to empathize with Goldberg's ordeal. "You're dealing with that tragedy _ to be turned away, that you don't count, to be victimized again, who amongst us would want to feel that way?"
To qualify for funeral planning rights, a couple must be at least 18, have lived together for one year and prove they were financially dependent, for example, by owning property together or sharing a bank account.
Carcieri argued that state law already allows residents to designate people to plan their funerals. He said the requirements in the bill meant to prove a relationship were too vague.
"Finally, this bill represents a disturbing trend over the past few years of the incremental erosion of the principles surrounding traditional marriage, which is not the preferred way to approach this issue," Carcieri wrote in a letter to lawmakers.
If lawmakers want to grant domestic partnership rights, they should put the issue on a ballot and let the voters decide, Carcieri said.
A handful of lawmakers opposed the move, including Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, D-Woonsocket, who supports civil unions for gay couples but opposes gay marriage. She objected to allowing people as young as 18 to qualify as domestic partners for the purpose of claiming a loved one's body.
Baldelli-Hunt said she could theoretically be stopped from planning a funeral for one of her children if they died while in a relationship that qualified under the new law.
"Do I have to lose my rights as a parent because my son is in an intimate relationship with an 18-year-old girl for one year?" she said.