RI Civil Unions Religious Exemption Sets Dangerous Precedent

Rhode Island has become the fifth state to give gay and lesbian people access to civil unions—but not before giving religious organizations the right to treat them in the most un-Christian manner possible.

Governor Lincoln Chafee reluctantly signed the bill. The Chicago Tribune noted that he had wanted full marriage equality for gay and lesbian citizens of his state:

Describing the proposal that passed the tiny New England state’s Senate this week as “a step forward,” he said it did not fully achieve its goals of giving same gender pairs the same rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities as married couples.

The new law includes a section that says no religious organization—including some hospitals, cemeteries, schools and community centers—or its employees may be required to treat as valid any civil union, providing a religious exemption “of unparalleled and alarming scope,” Chafee said in a statement.

Most “religious liberty” exemptions for religious organizations guarantee the rights they already have, like refusing to perform a ceremony for a couple or allow them to use church property, but this exemption is beyond the pale. To allow religious organizations to reject a legal document called a “civil union” in matters of health care is reprehensible, and sets a dangerous precedent.

The argument against giving gays and lesbians marriage equality has been the old canard of “they can draw up legal papers for health and financial matters if they want.” This measure takes even that away, leaving gay and lesbian couples at the mercy of so-called Christian employers, undertakers, and health care professionals.

For religious organizations to insist on such a wide berth—so wide as to violate the rights (and the dignity) of partners—betrays their real agenda. It’s not the freedom to practice their religion that they want, but the freedom to punish, with impunity, those who refuse to conform to their beliefs.