PROVIDENCE (Reuters) - Rhode Island's Senate approved same-sex civil unions on Wednesday, passing a controversial bill not amended from the House version and sent on to the governor who is expected to sign the law.
On a vote of 21 to 16, the Senate approved the proposal sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Peter Petrarca that grants legal rights to same-sex partners "without the historical and religious meaning associated with the word marriage," a statement from the Rhode Island General Assembly said.
"I am very proud of my colleagues in the General Assembly for recognizing that this is the right piece of legislation at the right time," said Petrarca, who supports same-sex marriage.
"We have made great progress in our goal of providing increased rights, benefits and protections for gay and lesbian couples," he added. "This bill is a step forward to ensuring equality and improving their quality of life."
The bill has been sent to Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent, Senate spokesman Greg Pare told Reuters. A Chafee spokesman said the governor is expected to sign the bill.
The decision for tiny Rhode Island comes a week after New York became the nation's most populous state to legalize gay marriage.
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.
Gay advocacy groups, such as Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), support some aspects of the civil unions bill but would prefer same-sex nuptials to be legalized in the state.
Some groups had asked legislative leaders to seek removal of a House amendment they say 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.
If the amendment is not removed by the senate, MERI will ask Governor Chafee to veto the bill, MERI executive director Gene 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.
Rhode Island and Maine have not joined their four New England neighbors - Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut -- 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)