PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island (Reuters) - A week after New York became the nation's most populous state to legalize gay marriage, tiny Rhode Island is set to vote on a bill to allow same-sex civil unions.
On the eve of long anticipated action by Rhode Island's Senate, activists on both sides of the issue were busy urging legislative leaders to either revise certain provisions or halt its passage altogether.
If voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, just days before the 2011 legislative session ends, the bill could face balloting by the full Senate as early as late Wednesday, Senate spokesman Greg Pare said.
Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent, was expected to sign the bill, which already passed the House in May.
The proposal defines civil unions as a legal union between two individuals of the same sex, granting all the rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities to them that the state affords to people who are married.
Marriage Equality Rhode Island, a gay advocacy group, supports some aspects of the civil unions bill but would prefer same-sex nuptials to be legalized in the state, said MERI executive director Gene Dyszlewski.
The group is also asking legislative leaders to seek removal of what it calls a "dangerous" and "discriminatory" House amendment it says would let any religious entity -- including hospitals, cemeteries, and schools -- and its employees effectively ignore the legal standing of a civil union for any reason it chooses.
For example, a civil union spouse could be denied the ability to participate in a partner's emergency medical care if the hospital had a religious affiliation and decided not to recognize civil union partners, Dyszlewski said.
If the amendment is not removed by the senate, MERI will ask Governor Chafee to veto the bill, Dyszlewski said.
Opposed to the bill altogether is the National Organization for Marriage's Rhode Island chapter. The group says same-sex civil unions threaten the concept of one man-one woman marriage and the bill doesn't protect the religious liberties of businesses and individuals.
"Such individuals in other states where civil unions or domestic partnerships are recognized have been successfully sued for discrimination when they chose not to serve same-sex couples," said a statement on NOM's website.
Rhode Island and Maine have not joined their four New England neighbors -- Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island -- in legalizing same-sex nuptials. Same sex marriage is also now legal in Iowa, the District of Columbia and, most recently, New York.
Civil unions were approved in Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey.
Same sex marriage is banned in 39 states.
(Reporting by Zach Howard; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jerry Norton)