Little Support for Marriage Alternative in Rhode Island

By | April 7, 2011

A proposal to extend some of the rights of marriage to same-sex couples and others who can’t legally marry, such as siblings, is winning little support amid Rhode Island’s debate over legalizing gay marriage.

The legislation would grant some rights associated with insurance coverage, health care decisions and inheritance to so-called “reciprocal beneficiaries.” Relatives would also be eligible for the legal relationship so long as each relative is single and over 18. Any two people who could legally marry would be ineligible.

A handful of states around the nation have created similar legal relationships. In Rhode Island, the idea is one of several alternatives being considered this year to a proposal to legalize gay marriage.

The legislation has groups on both sides of the gay marriage debate in rare agreement: neither side likes the idea of reciprocal beneficiaries, but for different reasons. No one spoke in favor of the measure at a legislative hearing Tuesday night.

Kara Russo, an opponent of gay marriage, said she worries that a reciprocal beneficiary law is a first step to full marriage for gay couples.

“It’s a Trojan horse,” Russo said. “They know this will get them same-sex marriage. This is their backup plan.”

But groups behind the gay marriage bill oppose a reciprocal beneficiary bill because it wouldn’t extend full marriage rights. Kathy Kushnir, executive director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, said in a statement that same-sex couples “deserve nothing less than equal access to marriage.”

Two people with reciprocal beneficiary status could make decisions about the other’s medical care, receive coverage under the other person’s insurance and be treated as spouses when it comes to inheritance law. But they wouldn’t receive many other rights awarded through marriage — including child custody rights, child support, tax credits and incentives and veterans and Social Security benefits.

Hawaii was the first state to adopt a similar law giving some of the rights of marriage to same-sex couples as well as relatives.

Thomas Coleman, executive director of the group Unmarried America, noted that two unmarried people can use legal contracts to receive the same benefits of a reciprocal beneficiary law. His group, which advocates for single people, opposes reciprocal beneficiary laws because unmarried heterosexual couples aren’t eligible.

“We’ve got this mixed bag of experiments from around the country with civil unions and domestic partnerships,” he said. “But marriage is still on the pedestal, and then there’s this lesser institution for the poor suckers that can’t get married.”

Committees in the House and Senate have held hearings on legislation allowing gay marriage, but neither chamber has scheduled a vote on the bill.

Topics Legislation

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