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Rhode Island lawmakers could introduce a civil unions bill as soon as Tuesday after deciding this week not to push for marriage equality legislation.
According to the Associated Press, "The new bill comes after House Speaker Gordon Fox declared that gay marriage legislation wouldn't pass the General Assembly this year. Fox, who is gay, now supports civil unions as a more politically feasible alternative."
The civil unions legislation would seek to give same-sex couples in Rhode Island the same state rights given to married couples. Lawmakers are reviewing civil unions laws in other states to help them draft their proposal, the AP reports.
Senate president Teresa Paiva-Weed, a marriage equality opponent, supports civil unions and has said she believes a bill would pass her chamber. Fox attributed the marriage equality setback in part to her opposition, but others debate whether his chamber had enough votes to pass the bill. Committee hearings were held in both the house and senate this winter on the marriage equality bill, but no votes were ever taken.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent who pushed for marriage equality, said he would sign a civil unions bill if it passes. Other advocates strongly object to the change in direction.
"Rhode Island House Speaker Gordon Fox has made a serious miscalculation. With support for the freedom to marry topping 60 percent--higher than in any other state in the country--and with a strongly supportive governor, the Rhode Island House should send a marriage bill--and nothing less--to the senate now," said Freedom To Marry national campaign director Marc Solomon in a statement on Wednesday. "Couples who are doing the work of marriage in their day-to-day lives, who have made a commitment in life, deserve to have an equal commitment under the law. That legal commitment is called marriage. Freedom to Marry is prepared to join with Speaker Fox, advocates on the ground, and a super-majority of Rhode Islanders to make the strongest case to the senate," he said.
Spokespeople for Marriage Equality Rhode Island, the statewide organization that partners with Freedom To Marry, also criticized the civil unions approach. Earlier this week, MERI executive director Kathy Kushnir announced she would resign effective May 11, but the organization said that private reasons, and not the faltering marriage equality campaign, prompted her announcement. Kushnir has not responded to a request for comment.
Vermont governor Peter Shumlin, who visited Rhode Island last month to urge lawmakers not to adopt the "half step" of civil unions, called the new possibility "disappointing" in a statement to The Advocate.
"It would be disappointing if Rhode Island stopped short of full inclusion of its lesbian and gay citizens in 2011, but I recognize that every state needs to find its own path," he said. "I'm quite sure they'll quickly realize, as we did in Vermont, that civil unions simply aren't equal."