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POLITICS AS USUAL (By Jim Baron) Not sure the whole civil unions thing is settled

May 22, 2011

I have a funny feeling about the civil unions bill that passed the House of Representatives last week.
Everyone seemed eager to get a vote one way or the other on this contentious and discomfiting issue and get it off the table once and for all, or at least for the rest of this General Assembly session, but I’m not sure this whole thing is settled.
Both the pro- and anti- gay marriage forces say they are going to try to tinker with the bill in the Senate, where it could all unravel. The legislation was shepherded through the House by Speaker Gordon Fox, but it has no such powerful champion in the Senate; there isn’t even a Senate version of the bill. With no shepherd in the Senate, and with no groups or even individuals making a strong case for it, this bill could become an orphan nobody wants to adopt.
The idea was to get this issue off everyone’s plate so the focus could turn to the budget. If there are too many changes, and the bill has to keep flying back and forth between the House and Senate, it could get caught in the last-minute end-of-session rush that is coming sooner than you might think.
The debate in the House on the civil unions bill was, well, very civil. It was over in less than two hours and there was none of the rancorous shouting and interminable appeals to points of order that usually mark debates in that chamber; virtually everyone used their inside voices.
I have seen screaming, snarling, red-faced, frothing-at-the-mouth donnybrooks that have gone on for hours in the House over dog leashes or some other trifling matter. But on this, a bill that one legislator called “a societal game changer,” and “the single most important issue we have ever, and possibly will ever, debate on this floor,” the discourse was decorous and collegial, almost distinguished. That made me suspicious right off the bat.
The lack of righteous outrage in a chamber that is usually full of it (no pun intended) was palpable. There were a couple of times when I was sure somebody was going to hit the ceiling, but it never happened.
Right off the bat, Rep. Arthur Corvese of North Providence had a floor amendment — what I call the “It’s still OK to discriminate against homosexuals if you give a religious reason for doing so” amendment —- that would, in effect, allow religious organizations and people who have “sincerely held” religious beliefs to not treat civil unions as valid. That means banquet halls would not have to accommodate celebrations of civil unions; photographers wouldn’t have to accept work for a couple’s civil union. It does get more serious than that — hospitals run by religious organizations may not want to grant full visitation and other rights to a couple in a civil union; a doctor might not want to perform in-vitro fertilization for a lesbian couple.
That was a fairly reprehensible amendment which, for all intents and purposes, legislatively sanctions discrimination against civil unions and those who are parties to them (read: homosexuals) as long as the bigot’s religious beliefs are sincerely held. (Question: how is the law supposed to measure such sincerity? Would a photographer with frivolously held religious beliefs still have to take pictures?)
I figured someone was going to blow up at that one; no one did. It passed — any time any amendment passes on the House floor, that means the skids have been greased for it — by a vote of 63-6.
Then there was what was supposed to be the big moment of the day for marriage equality supporters: Rep. Arthur Handy’s amendment that would allow same-sex marriage. That was shoved aside by a parliamentary ruling by the Speaker.
I expected the chamber to erupt over that one as well, but it didn’t. However, that is probably pretty much what had to happen. The only reason the House was debating civil unions and not Handy’s same-sex marriage bill is that the latter had no hope of passing in the Senate and Fox didn’t want to put members in the position of casting a difficult vote on a controversial bill if there was no way it was going to become law.
So while same-sex marriage supporters did not get the floor vote on marriage equality that they wanted there were still 23 votes to override the ruling of the chair, and they counted that as a small victory of sorts.
For balance, a proposed amendment by Corvese to insert a definition of marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman was likewise ruled out of order by Fox.
A quick word about the terminology of this issue: Marriage equality seems like one of those market-tested, focus-group terms for what until recently was called gay marriage. Like it or not, some people are still squeamish about the word gay, and who isn’t in favor of equality? So now the issue becomes marriage equality. Still, it seems like a generic and white-bread phrase. OK, enough of semantics, back to substance.
Lincoln Rep. Peter Petrarca is to be applauded. His bill gives gay couples everything they were likely to get from this legislature and it passed by a whopping 62-11 vote. No, it is not full equality, but advocates shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
The National Organization for Marriage-Rhode Island says it is going to work in the Senate to get Corvese’s definition of marriage amendment added to the bill there.
“If we are going to extend the rights of marriage then we should define what we mean by marriage,” NOM-RI’s Chris Plante said in a written statement after the vote. He said they will also try to make Corvese’s religious exception amendment even stronger.
“As has been demonstrated in cases in California, Nevada, and New Jersey, among others,” Plante said, “the passage of civil unions poses many of the same threats to religious liberties and rights-of-conscience as does the legalization of same-sex marriage.”
GLAD isn’t happy, either. Where Plante found the religious exception too weak, Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders called it “the most restrictive religious exemption attached to any civil union or marriage bill in the country.
GLAD attorney Karen Loewy said, “this unprecedented exemption means a civil union spouse could be denied the ability to make medical decisions for her spouse in a hospital; it means that a math teacher at a religiously-based school could not get the same health insurance for his legally recognized partner that all other teachers receive. This exemption actually diminishes nondiscrimination protections in public accommodations and employment.”
Loewy said it inflicts “gratuitous harm” on gay and lesbian families.
She also cites “inherent inequalities” embodied in bill. For instance, it creates a mechanism to dissolve civil unions, but same-sex couples married in another state still cannot get officially divorced in Rhode Island.
In short, don’t think this issue is going to go away anytime soon. There is still a lot of debate and jockeying to go before the Senate has its say.
MERI (Marriage Equality Rhode Island) campaign director Ray Sullivan says the group is going to be back “tomorrow and the next day” fighting for a full marriage bill. And NOM-RI and its allies are going to keep pushing for marriage to be legally defined as a relationship between one man and one woman.
If any of the legislators think that this issue isn’t going to spill over into next year’s election, they are kidding themselves.

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