Same-sex marriage in Rhode Island
|Legal status of
*Not yet in effect
Same-sex marriage in Rhode Island became legal on August 1, 2013. The state had authorized a limited form of domestic partnerships from 2002 to 2011, and the formation of civil unions from 2011 until the state began recognizing same-sex marriages in 2013.
Beginning in 2002, Rhode Island allowed for unregistered domestic partnerships that provided a small number of legal benefits to same-sex couples. For example, the surviving spouse of such a partnership, if a police officer, fire fighter, or correctional officer, could receive a death benefit. Domestic partners could adjust their state taxes to reflect the costs of health insurance premiums. Domestic partners could control the funeral arrangements of a deceased partner. This status became inactive with the state's adoption of civil unions.
In February 2007, Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch issued an opinion advising that same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts be recognized in Rhode Island. He said that "his interpretation permitted recognition of the marriages, although he acknowledged that it was just an opinion and did not have the force of law." The Human Rights Campaign noted that "This is not a binding opinion and the attorney general noted that this question will most likely be answered by the courts."
In September 2006, Massachusetts Superior Court Justice Thomas E. Connolly ruled that same-sex couples who live in Rhode Island can marry in Massachusetts. The ruling was a response to a 1913 law that prohibited Massachusetts from performing marriages that were not legal in the couple's home state. The ruling did not affect the status of such marriages in Rhode Island.
In December 2007, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held, in a 3–2 opinion, that the state's Family Court lacks jurisdiction to hear a divorce petition involving a same-sex couple who were married in Massachusetts.
In May 2011, a bill to legalize civil unions rather than same-sex marriage was introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly. On May 19, 2011, the bill passed the Rhode Island House of Representatives by a vote of 62 to 11, with two Representatives not voting. The Rhode Island Senate then passed bill on a vote of 21–16 on June 29. The governor signed the bill on July 2, 2011, and the bill retroactively took effect as of July 1, 2011. The legislation included extensive and controversial exemptions that allow any religiously affiliated organization or institution, such as schools, universities and hospitals, to deny recognition of spouses in civil union, which made it unpopular with advocates of marriage equality.
Since the legalization of civil unions in Rhode Island, participation has been very low. As of February 2012, only 46 couples had established civil unions. Civil unions have not been available since August 1, 2013, when the bill legalizing same-sex marriage took effect, but existing civil unions are still recognized.
In early 2011, legislation to legalize same-sex marriage was introduced. Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent at the time, had previously indicated that he would sign such legislation if it were approved by the state legislature. In April 2011, the legislation stalled due to lack of support in the legislature and contentious debate.
On January 3, 2013, Rep. Arthur Handy and Sen. Donna Nesselbush introduced legislation to legalize same-sex marriage. The House version had 42 of 75 members as sponsors, while the Senate version had 11 of 38. On January 7, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin called the legislation "immoral and unnecessary" and recommended a referendum over enacting same-sex marriage by statute. Gov. Chafee said on January 11 that he would probably veto such a referendum. The Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island, W. Nicholas Knisely, said he was "eager to see our state legislature join many others across the country in passing legislation to ensure civil marriage equality."
The House Judiciary Committee approved the legislation unanimously on January 22. The House passed the bill on a 51-19 vote two days later. The Rhode Island Council of Churches endorsed the legislation on January 31. On April 23, all 5 Republican state senators announced their support for the legislation—the first time a party's caucus in a state legislature has supported same-sex marriage unanimously—and the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the legislation in a 7-4 vote while defeating a proposal to present the issue to voters as a referendum. On April 24, the Rhode Island Senate passed an amended version of the bill by a 26-12 vote. On April 30, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the legislation. The House passed the legislation on May 2 on a vote of 56 to 15, and Chafee signed the legislation the same day. Bishop Tobin reiterated his opposition the same day and wrote a letter to Rhode Island Catholics that said "homosexual acts are ... always sinful" and advised that "Catholics should examine their consciences very carefully before deciding whether or not to endorse same-sex relationships or attend same-sex ceremonies. To do so might harm their relationship with God."
The legislation took effect on August 1, 2013.
Various polls have been commissioned by participants in the same-sex marriage debate, including Rhode Island Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), which opposes same-sex marriage. The poll results reflect different question wording and sampling, with NOM's polls generally showing far weaker support for same-sex marriage than other polls.
Forty-three percent of Rhode Islanders are Catholic. A survey by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for Rhode Island Marriage Coalition in August 2010 showed that 63% of Catholics supported same-sex marriage provided it did not infringe on the church's right to choose whom it marries.
Public Policy Polling reported that a poll taken in January 2013 found 57% of Rhode Island voters supported the legalization of same-sex marriage and 36% opposed legalization. Given other options, 31% preferred civil unions to marriage and 13% opposed all forms of legal recognition for same-sex relationships.
A survey conducted by the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University on February 21–23, 2013, found that 60.4% of Rhode Island voters supported same-sex marriage and 26.1% opposed.
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