PROVIDENCE — Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), the group that fought for a same-sex marriage law last year, but had to accept the compromise of civil unions, is coming back again in the new legislative year.
It's top priority is once again a same-sex marriage law, but the group will also be looking to make changes to the civil unions law, including seeking the repeal of an amendment included last year that they say is discriminatory and unfair.
Called the “Corvese Amendment” for its author, North Providence Rep. Arthur Corvese, in essence allows religious based institutions and businesses or individuals employed by them to not treat as valid any civil union.
“It is so overly broad, it actually empowers any religious related organization like a hospital or college to ignore the legal standing of a civil union spouse,” said Raymond Sullivan, a former state representative who is now a lobbyist for MERI, having been out of the General Assembly for more than a year.
For example, he said, the amendment could allow a hospital such as Fatima or St. Joseph, which are operated by the Catholic church, could forbid a couple in a civil union from visitation rights, or participating in each others' medical decisions. A university such as Salve Regina could prevent a partner in a civil union from taking family and medical leave if the other partner is ill.
Whether or not the administration of such institutions would enforce such policies, Sullivan said, “is irrelevant. The fact that the state has empowered an organization, especially a health care organization, to make that decision is alarming and discriminatory.
Sullivan said MERI does not oppose what he called “common sense exceptions” to the civil unions law, such as not requiring a church to perform a civil union ceremony, or not require a Knights of Columbus hall from being the site of a reception.
“We believe the government should not be in the business of telling a religion what rites or ceremonies it must convey or condone. But at the same time the state should not give any private organization the autonomous authority to operate outside the boundaries of the law and discriminate against a class of citizens.”
Asked on Tuesday about the efforts to repeal his amendment, Corvese said, “I don't think there is a need for any changes and I don't think in 2012 you will see either one of those bills (repealing the amendment or same-sex marriage) gain traction in either chamber.”
Sullivan acknowledged it is likely that many political leaders “would be much happier if we just went away.”
Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, after the civil unions bill passed in the Senate last year, told reporters she considered the same-sex marriage issue dead for this year. “If that's the attitude, then I can tell you that as much as some politicians hope we will go away, nothing can be further from the truth.”
Another problem with the civil unions law, Sullivan said, is “there are significant reciprocity issues” with same-sex marriage laws in other states.
“For same-sex couples who were married in other states and live here, there are a number of questions about what that marriage means in the Rhode Island,” he said. “Our interpretation is that if you want the recognition that they attempt to afford with civil unions, then you have to check your marriage license at the border, go through a new process and apply for a civil union, even after you have already been married.
“That civil union law,” Sullivan said, “as much as it may have been born in good intent, has resulted in enacting one of the most discriminatory laws in the country and at the end of the day has raised more questions than it has answered.
“In 2012,” Sullivan added, “a majority of Rhode Islanders recognize that it is no longer acceptable, nor was it ever acceptable, for the state to actively discriminate against a minority class of citizens and deny them equal rights and recognition under the law.