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Embattled civil unions bill faces two fronts

May 12, 2011

PROVIDENCE – Supporters of same sex marriage called Rep. Peter Petrarca’s civil unions bill a separate but unequal half measure that renders gay couples as second-class citizens that is an unsatisfactory compromise to marriage equality.
Opponents of same-sex marriage painted it as a Trojan horse that will turn over decisions on the sanctity of wedlock to unelected judges and will compromise the very institution of marriage.
Suffice it to say the hearing made for a long night for members of the House Judiciary Committee hearing, who had already endured a six-hour hearing on marriage equality bills earlier this session.
Here is the flavor of some of the testimony the committee heard Wednesday night:
Pastor Jay Stirnemann of Tiverton told the panel, “I believe this bill is a tremendous step backwards. Immorality has nothing to do with civil rights. Why are we going to such great lengths to accommodate perversion? This is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It will never work. We must act now to stop the free-fall of morality that is occurring in our society. God is watching, along with all of heaven to see if we have the courage to stand against the forces of evil who are trying to reorder marriage and the family. God is the author of marriage in the Garden of Eden, not the government.”
A rabbi whose name was unintelligible during testimony said that in the wake of the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, schoolteachers in that state “are now teaching sodomy to little children in the classroom.”
Tony DeLuca, who spoke, with his wife, Sylvia, against the bill because they believe it would disparage the relationship their lesbian daughter has with her partner, said, “human rights are a special kind of inalienable moral entitlement., attached to all persons, equally, by virtue of their humanity, irrespective of race, nationality or membership in any particular social group. How then can any American declare to be a more perfect human being than any other American? In establishing a separate but equal status for gay and lesbian marriages, you will forever designate our totally human, loving, lesbian daughter, Luisa, and her equally human and loving lesbian spouse as abnormal creations of a lesser God. Our pain is most palpable and it runs very deeply. Luisa and Brenda are not animals, they are not animals. They are total human beings. As their ever-loving parents, we seriously resent and vehemently reject such a bigoted, hateful, and disdainful classification which you seek to impose as a matter of law. In passing civil union legislation, you will be making bad law.”
Patricia Baker, a correctional officer with the state of Rhode Island for more than 30 years, who married her wife, Deborah, in Provincetown, Mass., six years ago, said, “three months ago I was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer and I am terminally ill. As I began to put my affairs in order, I learned that our marriage does not receive federal recognition due to the Defense of Marriage Act. Therefore, my wife, as it stands now, will be ineligible for my Social Security benefits when I pass, benefits she will need to maintain our home and meet our monthly expenses. I may not live long enough to see this thing come true, but my wife will. It has been proposed that Rhode Islanders settle for civil unions as opposed to a full marriage equality bill. Civil unions will not afford Rhode Islanders the same recognition as passage of a full marriage bill, because of the word marriage.”
Baker and others argued that the civil union status could hinder Rhode Island gay and lesbian couples if the federal Defense of Marriage Act is repealed or struck down by the courts.
The Rev. Bernard Healey of the Diocese of Providence’s Office of Governmental Liaison, said, “Civil unions are essentially marriage under another name. They provide a distinction without any difference. Recent history has proved that a vote for civil unions is a vote for same-sex marriage. Every time civil unions have been imposed on a state, demands for same sex marriage have followed.” Healey said if the civil union bill passes, “the next step will likely be a federal lawsuit under the equal protection clause (of the U.S. Constitution), claiming that the denial of the use of the term ‘marriage’ is either ‘sexual orientation’ discrimination that triggers and fails heightened scrutiny or, more likely, lacks any ‘rational basis.’”
He worried that faith-based institutions might be forced to hire an individual who has entered a same-sex union “even if it interferes with a core aspect of the institution’s ministry or core belief”; be compelled to provide employment benefits, or be required to place adoptive or foster care children to individuals in a same-sex union.
John Flynn, attorney to the House leadership, told the panel that a portion of the bill that states that “A civil union, or a substantially similar legal relationship, legally entered into a (sic) another jurisdiction, shall be recognized in Rhode Island as a civil union” will be changed to prevent couples who were married in a jurisdiction that allows marriages to suffer “a lessening” in the recognition of their relationship.
He noted that a same-sex couple married in another state or country can enter into a civil union in Rhode Island to enjoy all the rights that extend from that.
Several committee members noted that no one signed up to support the civil unions measure and said they were concerned to be voting for a bill that no one of their constituents are in favor of.

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