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New civil union law passed despite fierce opposition

PROVIDENCE—Despite heavy opposition, Governor Lincoln Chafee Saturday signed into law a civil unions bill that is drawing criticism from church officials on the diocesan and national levels.

Diocese of Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, in a statement released Thursday, said he was deeply disappointed with the passage of a civil unions bill by the state legislature.

“The concept of civil unions is a social experiment that promotes an immoral lifestyle, is a mockery of the institution of marriage as designed by God, undermines the well-being of our families and poses a threat to religious liberty,” Bishop Tobin said.

The Senate voted late Thursday 21-16 in favor of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Peter Petrarca (D-Lincoln) to legalize civil unions between same-sex couples. The vote came on the heels of a surprising 7-4 vote that afternoon by the Senate Judiciary Committee to recommend passage of the bill.

The bishop added that while the church’s teachings promote praying for the well-being and offering spiritual guidance and pastoral care for persons with same-sex attraction—as they are children of God—the church also reminds its members that homosexual activity is contrary to the natural law and the will of God, and therefore, objectively sinful.

“Because civil unions promote an unacceptable lifestyle. undermine the faith of the church on holy matrimony and cause scandal and confusion, Catholics may not participate in civil unions,” Bishop Tobin said. “To do so is a very grave violation of the moral law and thus, seriously sinful. A civil union can never be accepted as a legitimate alternative to matrimony.”

While the law allows for the “legal union of two members of the same sex,” affording them the same rights, benefits and protections that come with marriage, it also provides some protections for religious organizations, the result of an amendment sponsored by Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence) on May 19, 2011 before the bill cleared the House by a vote of 65-11.

It is these protections, which exempt religious organizations, affiliated organizations and non-profit groups such as the Knights of Columbus and other religious based groups from being required to perform duties at or “treat as valid any civil union,” that proponents of same-sex marriage have objected to in recent days.

During the hearings leading up to the passage of the bill, several examples were discussed regarding business owners who were sued for their refusal to provide services to same-sex couples.

In one instance, a same-sex couple filed suit against a New Mexico wedding photographer for refusing to photograph their service. In another case, a New Jersey church was sued for refusing to make its hall available for a same-sex wedding banquet.

This prompted Rep. Corvese to file an amendment to the bill to ensure Rhode Island churches and organizations would not be sued over their refusal to provide such services.

“If someone does not want to participate in a civil union, they shouldn’t be penalized then for not doing what is against their beliefs,” said Rep. Sam Azzinaro (D-Westerly), who voted against the bill when it came before him in the House and remains opposed to civil unions as he feels they are a steppingstone to the eventual passage of full same-sex marriage in the state. Azzinaro earlier sponsored an amendment that would have exempted business owners and professionals such as wedding planners, marriage counselors and wedding photographers from participating in civil union ceremonies if they violated their personal conscience. The amendment failed on the House floor on May 19, 2011.

Father Bernard A. Healey, Governmental Liaison for the Diocese of Providence, expressed his “deep disappointment that the General Assembly passed a bill that clearly undermines marriage.” He suggested that despite the overwhelming opposition from all sides “our elected officials felt that this civil union bill was a compromise.” “I am unsure why elected officials would vote for a bill that literally not one person testified in favor of and was opposed by so many diverse groups and individuals on all sides of the issue,” questioned Healey.

Father Healey commended the members of General Assembly who voiced their opposition to the bill during floor debates and in particular commended Representatives Corvese and Azzinaro for introducing amendments to protect faith based groups and individuals. “I would like to personally thank the representatives and senators who voted against the bill and took a courageous stand to protect the institution of marriage.

Representatives Corvese and Azzinaro are to be commended for their valiant efforts as well as Senator Harold Metts for his bold defense of marriage on the Senate floor. They truly were profiles in courage at a time when it was most needed. We will need more like them as the battle over marriage continues in the years ahead.”

Chris Plante, executive director of National Organization for Marriage-Rhode Island, said that while his organization is pleased that the bill has unprecedented protections for religious liberties, NOM feels that such protections do not go far enough to protect the religious liberties of business owners and professionals who wish to run their practices according to their deeply held religious beliefs.

Plante believes the bill ignored “almost universal opposition,” and has made it easier for the courts to redefine marriage without a vote of the people.

“The Senate’s refusal to allow a definition of marriage to be inserted into the bill is either a deliberate omission to set the stage for a future law suit or a naïve belief that homosexual marriage advocates will go away,” Plante said.

Further, he feels that by not including an “inseverability” clause, the Senate has left vulnerable the religious liberties protections put into the bill by the Corvese Amendment. Rep. Frank Ferri (D-Warwick) and other homosexual marriage advocates have indicated they intend to work to remove the “Corvese” Amendment in the near future.

The United States Council of Catholic Bishops last week denounced the passage of civil unions in Rhode Island, saying such legislation “further erodes marriage’s unique status.”

Bishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, said that marriage, the communion of husband and wife, is a unique reality that has no true parallel.

“The exclusive and permanent bond of a man and woman joined in marriage offers to the couple and to society a preeminent value that should not be eclipsed by governmental attempts to redesign fundamental realities by legal dictate.”

In elevating same-sex relationships to marital status with all of the rights of marriage, even if the new status is not called marriage, “fails justice because now the government is treating as similar two different realities that cannot be considered analogous or equivalent in any way,” Bishop Cordileone said.

“In no way can civil union measures be considered a permissible compromise or a step in advancing the common good; instead, they directly violate principles of justice and accelerate the push to redefine marriage itself,” he added.

As he sat at his desk on the Senate floor, Sen. Harold Metts (D-Providence) thumbed through a small copy of the New Testament.

Metts, who also serves as chairman of the Deacon Board at Congdon Street Baptist Church, was one of four Judiciary Committee Members who opposed the bill. He also voted against it on the Senate floor.

“Based on my religious beliefs, I do believe we’re marginalizing the New Testament,” Metts said of the contrary nature of civil unions, referring specifically to Matthew, Chapter 19 in which God is said to have created the human species as male and female, and the two “shall become one flesh.”


The Senate approved Rep. Petrarca’s Civil Unions bill 21-16, with one senator not voting.

N Dennis Algiere (R)

N David E. Bates (R)

N Frank Ciccone (D)

N Marc Cote (D)

Y Elizabeth Crowley (D)

Y Daniel DaPonte (D)

Y Frank DeVall (D)

Y Louis DiPalma (D)

Y James Doyle (D)

Y Walter Felag (D)

Y Paul Fogarty (D)

Y Hanna Gallo (D)

Y Maryellen Goodwin (D)

N Dawson Tucker Hodgson (R)

Y Paul Jabour (D)

N Nicholas Kettle (R)

NV Beatrice Lanzi (D)

Y Frank Lombardo (D)

Y Erin Lynch (D)

N Francis Maher (R)

Y Michael McCaffrey (D)

N Harold Metts (D)

Y Joshua Miller (D)

N Bethany Moura (R)

N Donna Nesselbush (D)

N Edward J. O’Neil (I)

N Christopher Ottiano (R)

N Rhoda E. Perry (D)

Y Roger Picard (D)

Y Juan Pichardo (D)

N Michael Pinga (D)

N Dominick Ruggerio (D)

Y James Sheehan (D)

N Glenford Shibley (R)

Y Susan Sosnowski (D)

Y John Tassoni (D)

Y William Walaska (D)

Y Teresa Paiva Weed (D)

Without a doubt