Rhode Island Governor Opens Door to Domestic Partnerships

By | November 16, 2009

A socially conservative governor who has fought for years against gay marriage in Rhode Island has slightly softened his stance by suggesting he may back a domestic partnership system offering legal protections for same-sex couples.

Republican Gov. Don Carcieri stridently opposes gay marriage and civil unions, which are not recognized in Rhode Island.

But after meeting privately Thursday with members of a gay rights group, Carcieri emerged from his Statehouse office and told reporters he would consider backing a domestic partnership system, perhaps one similar to an expansion approved this month by voters in Washington state. It offers gay couples the right to use sick leave to care for a domestic partner, and rights related to adoption, child custody and child support.

Carcieri said Friday that domestic partnerships are different from civil unions because a partnership system benefits gay couples and other nontraditional households, for example, two widows living together to save money.

“I’m prepared to look at something that would be more global and not specifically exclusive to same-gender” relationships, Carcieri said.

It’s not the first time Carcieri has toyed with the idea.

During his re-election campaign in 2006, Carcieri told The Associated Press that he opposed gay marriage and civil unions but said he might support some protections for gay couples if they also benefited other types of households. The governor never took any steps to implement such a system, although lawmakers have approved some piecemeal protections.

His proposal perplexed gay rights supporters who as recently as Tuesday called Carcieri a bigot for vetoing legislation allowing same-sex couples the same right to plan the funerals of their late partners as married couples. Carcieri said the bills represented an erosion of the principles behind heterosexual marriage.

A letter Carcieri wrote to lawmakers explaining his veto contained another reference to a domestic partnership system.

“If the General Assembly believes it would like to address the issue of domestic partnership, it should place the issue on the ballot and let the people of the state of Rhode Island decide,” Carcieri wrote.

Lawmakers favoring gay marriage were surprised by the out-of-the-blue offer.

“I don’t know what to think,” said Democratic Rep. Gordon Fox, a gay man who serves as House majority leader. He and Carcieri agreed Friday to meet and discuss the proposal, although Carcieri said his office has not drafted a proposal and could not offer any specifics.

“From the position he’s had, I think it’s been a big step,” Fox said.

Lawmakers have previously debated legislation that would have allowed gay unions short of marriage, but it contained a provision defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, a nonstarter for gay rights groups.

Leaders of Marriage Equality Rhode Island already have shrugged off Carcieri’s suggestion as inadequate. The organization has been lobbying exclusively for gay marriage, abandoning an earlier strategy that focused on winning incremental legal protections to gradually build public support for gay unions.

“It’s not equal,” said Kathy Kushnir, Marriage Equality’s executive director. “There’s a difference between piecing together little trinkets of rights and maybe some protections and treating people equally. Full civil marriage rights is what equalizes everything for everybody.”

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