Rhode Island's House of Representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly passed legislation allowing gay couples to enter into civil unions after a last-ditch effort to revive gay marriage legislation failed.
The 62-11 vote sends the measure to the Senate, where legislative leaders predict broad support for civil unions.
The proposal would allow gay couples to enter into civil unions granting all of the state rights given to married couples under Rhode Island law. It was introduced as a compromise after legislative leaders said gay marriage legislation lacked the votes needed to pass this year.
Many supporters of gay marriage said civil unions treat gay couples as second-class citizens. Many lawmakers said they agreed, but said they couldn't vote against giving gay couples many more rights than they currently receive.
Rep. Frank Ferri, D-Warwick, is openly gay and said the House endorsement of civil unions was bittersweet.
"Today I'm being asked to choose between equality and rights," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind that families like mine need these rights."
Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and the District of Columbia now recognize gay marriage. Illinois, New Jersey, Delaware and Hawaii have passed civil union bills similar to the one pending in Rhode Island.
Gay marriage advocates tried unsuccessfully to resurrect the gay marriage legislation during House debate. But their procedural move failed after House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is openly gay, ruled it out of order. A vote to overrule Fox failed 23-47.
Rhode Islanders opposed to civil unions gathered outside the House chamber during the two-hour debate to pray and sing religious songs. Rev. Santos Escobar, a pastor at Cranston's Abundant Life Church, said lawmakers were defying public opinion.
"They have ignored us," he said. "But we will remember how they voted in the next election."
Critics in the House warned that civil unions would prompt legal challenges designed to legalize gay marriage. Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence said civil unions were indistinguishable from marriage, and threated a "fundamental building block of society."
"If the founding fathers were alive today they would be rolling over in their graves," he said.
Opponents of civil unions proposed asking voters to weigh in on civil unions. Their request was rejected.
The debate was at times emotional, with lawmakers clashing over political pragmatism, Constitutional rights and personal stories. Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, voted against the bill in the House Judiciary Committee. But Thursday night he told his colleagues compassion made him change his mind.
"I'm a Republican. I'm a conservative. I was a no vote," he said. "If my lord Jesus Christ was here, he would say, what you do to the least of my people you do to me... I don't have that right."
The debate now moves to the Senate, which had been seen as unlikely to support gay marriage. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, has opposed gay marriage but supports the civil union bill and predicts it will win broad support.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, supports gay marriage but has called civil unions a pragmatic stating point
Groups on both sides of the divisive issue said civil unions are just another round in the more than decade-long debate over gay marriage in Rhode Island.
Chris Plante, director of the National Organization for Marriage-Rhode Island, said his group would lobby the Senate to defeat the measure.
"This whole debate was about marriage," he said. "Because this bill is a direct threat to marriage."
Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for the group Marriage Equality Rhode Island, said civil unions will never be a substitute for true marriage.
"We'll be back tomorrow and every day until all Rhode Islanders are recognized, protected and treated equally," he said.
Fox, the openly gay House Speaker, angered many gay marriage supporters when he announced last month that he would back civil unions because marriage legislation lacked the votes needed to pass. He presided over Thursday's debate but said little and left the House chamber immediately after the vote.
But earlier in the week Fox, D-Providence, told The Associated Press that the decision to back civil unions was a painful one, but one he ultimately believes with further the issue.
"To me it's progress," he said. "The strategy has to be about what we can pass."
This program aired on May 20, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.