RI civil union legislation divides gays

AP News
Posted: Jul 01, 2011 5:37 PM
RI civil union legislation divides gays

Becky Chace can hardly believe she's been calling the office of Rhode Island's governor to urge him to veto legislation that would allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions.

The 35-year-old singer-songwriter is gay. She wants to be forever committed _ legally _ to her partner of seven years, 38-year-old Christy Bergeson.

But she does not want a civil union of the sort spelled out in a bill the General Assembly has approved and which Gov. Lincoln Chafee is expected to sign. It includes language that would allow religious organizations to dismiss the rights given to gay couples in a civil union.

"Anybody could say, `Oh, we're not going to recognize that because we don't have to,'" said Chace, who owns a home with Bergeson in Barrington. "To me, it's meaningless if that's the case."

Gay rights groups, in the state and nationally, have been deeply disappointed with the civil union legislation, calling the exemptions discriminatory. Under the bill, for instance, a hospital with a religious affiliation could ignore the right of one individual in a civil union to make medical decisions for the other.

Marriage Equality for Rhode Island, Freedom to Marry, the Human Rights Campaign and other organizations have urged Chafee to veto it, saying that taking no action on the issue at all is preferable to enacting something they insist relegates them to second-class citizens.

The governor, who supports gay marriage, called it an "incremental" step toward that goal and has said he intends to sign it.

The state House of Representatives this year passed a gay marriage bill, but the legislation ran into opposition in the state Senate; it also was vigorously opposed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence. House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, who is gay, dropped the effort in favor of advancing civil union legislation, much to the chagrin of gay rights activists.

Sen. Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, is a gay marriage proponent. But she voted against the civil union bill.

"From a conscience point of view, I couldn't press the green button and vote for that," she said. "We can't confuse rights with equality."

Still, Nesselbush, the only openly gay state senator in Rhode Island, said its passage marked "a huge step forward." And she said that some people she knows in the gay community plan to enter into civil unions despite their dissatisfaction.

"Gay people can't give up the rights of civil unions to spite their face," she said.

Six states _ Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and New York _ as well as the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage. New York's GOP-controlled Senate approved gay marriage legislation last week after four Republican senators joined all but one Democrat in voting yes.

Republicans had demanded stronger legal protections for religious groups worried that they would be slapped with discrimination lawsuits if they refused to allow their facilities to be used for same-sex weddings.

Backers of New York's gay marriage legislation held up the victory as one with national implications, saying it would give momentum to the broader gay marriage movement. But New York's success left some in Rhode Island stinging over the fact that, even with a Democratic-controlled legislature and an independent governor who supports gay marriage, the state could muster only passage of civil unions, and with broad exemptions.

Several other states, including Illinois, Delaware and Hawaii, also offer civil unions or domestic partnerships instead.

Unable to marry in Rhode Island, Luisa DeLuca, 45, and Brenda Harvey, 41, of South Kingstown, tied the knot last summer in neighboring Massachusetts, which legalized gay marriage, under court order, in 2004.

While their hope is to marry one day in Rhode Island _ where they own a home and pay taxes _ DeLuca says that, for now, a civil union is "the next best thing."

"At least it's some sort of progress toward the ultimate goal, which is to obtain marriage equality," said DeLuca, who works as a psychotherapist in Providence. "So I'm not as opposed to it as other people might be. I might actually take some flak for that."

They're planning a civil union ceremony on their property for September.

DeLuca's parents have been outspoken proponents of gay marriage legislation _ and opponents of the so-called civil union "compromise" _ testifying repeatedly before state lawmakers. Anthony DeLuca told legislators that he and his wife, Sylvia, were "deeply offended" that the gay marriage bill had been dropped in favor of one he likened to Jim Crow-era laws that discriminated against African-Americans.

That some, including Chafee, a former Republican who left the GOP after he lost his U.S. Senate seat in 2006, have called the civil union bill an incremental step on the road to allowing gay marriage doesn't sit right with him.

"You don't divide humanity in incremental steps," he said. "At what point is my daughter, or other gays and lesbians, at what point do they become full-fledged human beings? In what increments?"

Still, he supports his daughter and daughter-in-law's decision to enter into a civil union.

Ashley Daigneault, 26, said Sen. Nesselbush, who is a municipal court judge, will be performing a civil union ceremony for her and her partner, Lyndsey Paparella, 28, in August.

Daigneault said they got engaged last year, with high hopes that by the time August came around the legislature would have legalized gay marriage.

Daigneault, who works for an education policy and advocacy group in Providence, and Paparella, who works in finance, are disappointed that the state did not approve gay marriage. But the couple, who live in South Kingstown, are taking a practical view of the situation.

"For us personally, we feel like it's important for us to be protected. We plan on having a family, and we own property. It's just not worth the risk for us to say we're going to take a stand" by holding out for a gay marriage law, she said.


Associated Press Writer Ian MacDougall contributed to this report.