By Zach Howard
PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island (Reuters) - Rhode Island's governor on Saturday signed into law a controversial bill legalizing same sex civil unions, but said it does not go far enough toward legalizing gay marriage.
Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent who supports gay marriage, nonetheless signed the measure with the promise that it would move Rhode Island closer to the ultimate goal of legalizing gay marriage.
Chafee had urged the General Assembly to consider same-sex marriage this legislative session. But some legislators felt it would be doomed in a state populated by many elderly and Catholic voters, and a civil unions bill was passed instead.
Rhode Island is the second state to act on gay unions just before state legislatures adjourned for the summer. New York lawmakers a week ago voted to legalize gay marriage, making it the most populous state to allow gay nuptials.
Chafee said he signed the civil unions bill with "reservations" because it "brings tangible rights and benefits to thousands of Rhode Islanders. It also provides a foundation from which we will continue to fight for full marriage equality."
He had two major criticisms of the civil union bill: that it failed to provide full marriage equality to same-sex couples and that it allowed religious entities to choose to not recognize civil unions.
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.
As a result, a civil union spouse could be denied the right to make medical decisions for his or her partner, access to health insurance benefits, property rights in adjoining burial plots or family memberships at some community centers. That could cause partners significant harm at critical moments in their lives, the governor said.
"This extraordinary exemption eviscerates the important rights that enacting a civil union law was meant to guarantee for same sex couples in the first place," Chafee said.
The legislation, sponsored by Democratic state Representative Peter Petrarca, essentially grants legal rights to same-gender partners without the historical and religious meaning associated with the word marriage, according to the Rhode Island General Assembly.
Gay advocacy groups supported some aspects of Rhode Island's civil unions bill but largely shared the same objections as the governor.
Opposed to it altogether is the National Organization for Marriage's Rhode Island chapter. The group said same-sex civil unions threaten the concept of one man-one woman marriage and the bill does not go far enough in protecting the religious liberties of businesses and individuals.
Rhode Island and Maine have not joined their four New England neighbors - Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut -- in legalizing same-sex nuptials. Same sex marriage is also now legal in Iowa, the District of Columbia and, most recently, New York, but it remains banned in 39 states.
Civil unions were approved in Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey.
(Reporting by Zach Howard; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)