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By DAVID KLEPPER
PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Rhode Island’s debate over civil unions for gay couples now moves to the state’s House of Representatives after a legislative panel gave it a tepid endorsement Tuesday.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 9-3 to advance the measure to a House vote now scheduled for Thursday.
The bill would allow gay couples to enter into civil unions granting all of the rights and benefits given to married couples under Rhode Island law, but stops short of sanctioning marriage. The proposal was introduced as a compromise after legislative leaders said gay marriage legislation lacked the votes to pass this year.
Gay marriage supporters are making a last-ditch push, however, with a House floor amendment that would replace the civil union bill with a proposal to extend full marriage rights to gay couples.
The civil union bill has attracted little public support from groups and lawmakers on both sides of the marriage debate. Gay marriage supporters say civil unions treat gay couples as second-class citizens. Opponents say civil unions are marriage by another name and worry they could open the door to gay marriage in Rhode Island.
Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont and the District of Columbia currently recognize gay marriage. Four states – Illinois, Hawaii, New Jersey and Delaware – have passed civil union laws similar to the one being considered in Rhode Island.
Several lawmakers who supported the civil union bill Tuesday said that while they’d prefer true marriage for gay couples, they couldn’t vote against civil unions.
“Better than nothing,” Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, said of civil unions.
Rep. Doreen Costa, R-North Kingstown, said she voted against the measure because no member of the public told her they supported it. “I’ve never seen so much opposition to a bill,” she said.
Lawmakers in favor of gay marriage plan to offer an amendment to transform the civil union proposal into a gay marriage bill when it is debated by the House. Rep. Arthur Handy, D-Cranston, is crafting the amendment. He said lawmakers should have the chance to vote on gay marriage.
“We’ve never enshrined discrimination in our laws, and that’s what this (the civil union bill) does,” he said. “People have worked so hard on this issue. This is the year, and this is the path to do it.”
Gay marriage opponents call that a losing strategy, since legislative leaders concede the votes aren’t there to pass a marriage bill, especially in the Senate.
“They didn’t have the votes two weeks ago, so they introduced civil unions,” said Chris Plante, director of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Marriage. “Why would they think they have the votes now?”
Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed’s opposition was a key obstacle to gay marriage legislation. The Newport Democrat says she supports civil union legislation and believes the bill will win broad support in the Senate.
One gay marriage opponent, Chris Young, was forcefully ejected from Tuesday’s committee after shouting at lawmakers immediately following the vote. “It doesn’t matter what the people want,” he yelled as a Statehouse officer dragged him from the committee room. “This is not a democratic society.”