The big hole in the Rhode Island civil unions law

by on July 4, 2011  •  In Religion, States

Time will tell whether the new Rhode Island civil unions law was worth it. Its structure is much like that of other state civil union laws, with one major exception: it contains a dangerously broad exemption for institutions and individuals to refuse on religious grounds to recognize the validity of a couple's legal relationship. 

The key text (emphasis added):

15-3.1-5. Conscience and religious organizations protected. – (a) Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, no religious or denominational organization, organization operated for charitable or educational purpose which is supervised or controlled by or in connection with a religious organization, and no individual employed by any of the foregoing organizations, while acting in the scope of that employment, shall be required:

(1) To provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges for a  purpose related to the solemnization, certification, or celebration of any civil union; or (2) To solemnize or certify any civil union; or (3) To treat as valid any civil union; if such providing, solemnizing, certifying, or treating as valid would cause such organizations or individuals to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Other state laws, like New York's new marriage statute, provide an opt-out on religious grounds from events related to the solemnization or celebration of a same-sex relationship. In Rhode Island, religiously-affiliated organizations and their employees are exempt from recognizing that the couple has any legal status.  This could affect medical care, social services, employment and a range of other transactions. (Religiously-affiliated hospitals, however, will still be bound by the new HHS rules for hospitals receiving Medicare that concern issues such as partner visitation.)

If this exemption is still in place in three years or so, I hope someone does a study of whether and how religious entities in the state utilized it and what the impact would be if this language were to be more widely adopted, as I'm sure its proponents will seek.


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