PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The same-sex “marriage” movement could be at a crossroads after a new civil-union law in Rhode Island failed to generate any interest among the homosexual community.
Barely more than a dozen couples obtained licenses under the new law, which went into effect in July.
The law granted same-sex couples the same benefits as married couples in Rhode Island without using the word “marriage” to describe their relationship. In the first two months after the law was enacted, only 14 couples sought civil unions — the worst response among any state that has passed a same-sex “marriage” or civil-union law, according to a report issued this fall by the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union.
The tepid response to the law — something the ACLU called an “embarrassing fiasco” — shows that same-sex “marriage” advocates don’t really want the benefits of marriage, said Chris Plante, the Northeast spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage. “It’s about wanting marriage,” he said.
Plante said the civil-unions statistics “puts the lie” to years of testimony by activists, claiming that they needed marriage in order to receive the same benefits and rights as heterosexual couples.
“It shows that the claim the homosexuals are seriously disadvantaged by being denied the legal rights and benefits of marriage is a fraud,” said Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council who specializes in marriage-and-family issues. “Their real goal, it appears, is not to gain the rights and benefits of marriage. It is to gain the social acceptance of homosexuality.”
Same-sex “marriage” advocates, on the other hand, say the law fell flat because it was still discriminatory. “This civil-union law legalizes discrimination and establishes a second-class citizenry. It’s not surprising that so few couples in loving, committed relationships have gone the civil-union route, and that’s a big part of the reason we continue fighting for full equality,” said Ray Sullivan, head of Marriage Equality Rhode Island.
Sullivan and other same-sex “marriage” advocates, like the state ACLU, also blame a religious-freedom exemption in the law that they say is far too broad. Sullivan said the legislation was “fundamentally flawed” because it “allows certain hospitals, educational institutions and other entities to operate outside the boundaries of the law” by not recognizing the legal status of civil-union spouses.
But Father Bernard Healey, the chief lobbyist for the Diocese of Providence, questions how many people in a church-affiliated institution would actually want a civil union. “That’s a red herring by them,” Father Healey said. “They want the total redefinition of marriage.”
Sullivan declined to respond directly. “The pro-equality movement is about love, family, respect and the advancement of fundamental human rights, nothing more, and nothing less,” he said.
Both sides seem to be in agreement on at least one point: The civil-union law was an unacceptable compromise that benefited no one. “This is really a bill that served no one,” Plante said. “Nobody testified in favor of this bill, no matter which side of the aisle they were on. It was a waste of legislation.”
The failure of civil unions in Rhode Island could mark the end to an idea that once was considered novel when it was introduced in Vermont more than a decade ago. Since then, it has become a compromise for politicians in other states like Illinois and New Jersey. But the days when there was room for compromise — a compromise which the Church still opposes — appear to be numbered.
“It’s clear that there is going to be a real confrontation over the definition of marriage,” Sprigg said. “The homosexual activists will be less willing to accept civil unions.”
Will the balance tip in favor of or against traditional marriage? “It all depends on which way the wishy-washy politicians go,” Sprigg said.
Rhode Island — the state with the most Catholics per capita — is the seventh state to pass a civil-union law. Two of those seven states, Vermont and New Hampshire, have since adopted same-sex “marriage” laws. An additional seven states have bypassed the civil-unions step, either outright legalizing same-sex “marriage” or crafting a domestic-partnership alternative. Only one state, California, has repealed benefits for same-sex couples.
Next Big Battle
Sprigg expects that one of the next big battles will be in his home state of Maryland, which, like Rhode Island, has large, traditionally Democratic constituencies that oppose same-sex “marriage,” such as African-Americans and Catholics.
As the clash between homosexual activists and traditional-marriage advocates intensifies, Sprigg worries that religious liberties will be increasingly threatened.
“I think there is going to be an inherent clash between same-sex ‘marriage’ and religious liberty,” he said. “There is no way to adequately protect religious liberty without writing exemptions that would be completely unacceptable to the advocates of same-sex ‘marriage.’ So I think a clash there is inevitable.”
Even though the religious exemption was broader in Rhode Island than other states with civil-union laws, such as Massachusetts and Illinois, traditional-marriage advocates worry that it is not extensive enough. While it does protect churches and church-affiliated organizations, it does not exempt faith-based organizations, like a Christian bookstore or independent faith-based adoption agency, from recognizing civil unions. It also does not create an exemption for individuals and business owners, like a campground owner who does not want to host a civil-union ceremony for faith reasons.
It’s what Sprigg calls the “four-walled freedom” — people are free to exercise their faith inside their homes and churches, but he warns that those freedoms are being increasingly cramped outside those walls.
Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.