Friday, July 15, 2011

Know Your Rights: What's Wrong With Rhode Island Civil Unions?

Guest post from GLAD Public Education Intern Sam Dusing

As an intern at GLAD, I have been watching the marriage/civil union debate unfold in Rhode Island. Since the passage of its civil union bill – called “An Act Relating to Domestic Relations” – there has been a great deal of talk about the differences between marriage and civil unions. Here are some of my thoughts.

Civil unions have supposedly been designed in Rhode Island to guarantee same-sex couples the same rights as married couples. The law is written so that “a party to a civil union shall be included in any definition or use of any term that denotes the spousal relationship.” That is, any Rhode Island law that identifies the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of married spouses now applies to couples in civil unions. But in fact, civil unions fall far from the mark of achieving the same rights as married couples in Rhode Island.

First, civil unions fail to extend the 1,138 federal protections given to married couples. While those protections are currently withheld from same-sex married couple because of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), GLAD is fighting to end this discrimination and feels that it is only a matter of time before these rights are available to married same-sex couples. Even if DOMA goes away, civil union couples will not have access to these protections.

Second, the law’s broad religious exemption states, “no religious or denominational organization, no organization operated for charitable or educational purpose which is supervised or controlled in connection with a religious organization” is required to respect your civil union or offer its facilities for a civil union ceremony or celebration. It gives religious institutions and the organizations connected to them permission to discriminate against same-sex couples. On the contrary, there is no “religious exemption” for marriage.

Third, marriage has existed for hundreds of years as a way for couples to profess the highest level of commitment to a loved one, as a family. A myriad of social communities – families, friend groups, churches – have historically identified marriage as a serious and definitive experience in the lives of its members. In other words, marriage is a familiar institution in our society that communicates a widely respected sense of commitment. Civil unions on the other hand have only been around for about a decade. Because they are not based in the same cultural and social history as marriage, civil unions do not come close to conferring the same respect as marriage.

Same-sex couples in Rhode Island do have the option of marriage in the border states of Massachusetts and Connecticut as well as New Hampshire, Vermont, Iowa, New York and Washington DC. But the question we often hear on GLAD’s Legal InfoLine is: Will my marriage from another jurisdiction be respected in Rhode Island? The answer is that in many contexts it will.

Rhode Island follows the longstanding tradition of respecting marriages in other jurisdictions unless they run contrary to a strong public policy of the state. Following this rule, former Attorney General Patrick Lynch made it very clear that these marriages should be respected, and, in many situations, they have been. However, in the case, Chambers v. Ormiston, the Rhode Island Supreme Court countered this tradition by denying same-sex married couples the right to divorce in Rhode Island. Marriage is certainly the gold standard in terms of acquiring social and legal recognition of your relationship, but in Rhode Island, for now at least, the best way for some same-sex couples to acquire certain rights and benefits may be through a civil union.

It is GLAD’s opinion that civil unions are inherently inferior to full marriage equality. However, whether you and your partner want to get married, enter into a civil union, or remain single depends on your own unique circumstances. Whatever option you may pick it is important to know what each relationship status means for you in Rhode Island. I also strongly recommend consulting with an attorney before making any of these important life-changing decisions. For more detailed information on the subject see our publication, Marriage and Civil Union Guide for Rhode Island Same-Sex Couples. If you have any questions or need attorney referrals call GLAD’s Legal InfoLine at 800-455-GLAD (4523).

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