Rhode Island: Civil unions bill would exempt judicial officers who object from solemnizing such unions

The press for gay marriage and/or civil unions throughout the states has been an ongoing effort for years. While several states have such partnerships through judicial determination, others have done so via statutes adopted by state legislatures. Rhode Island is currently considering a bill to create “domestic unions” (SB 376). Including in the bill are provisions similar to  those adopted in other states that would protect religious organizations from being forced to solemnize such unions, provide services related to such solemnization, or recognize such unions.

Similar though not identical provisions also exempt “individuals and small businesses” based on their “sincerely held religious beliefs”, however the provision has two exceptions. The individual or small business must provide goods or services to the union if a party to the union “is unable to obtain any similar good or services elsewhere without substantial hardship.” The second portion, however, is judiciary specific:

[The exemption for individuals and small businesses] shall not apply if…In the case of an individual who is a government employee or official, if another government employee or official is not promptly available and willing to provide the requested government service without inconvenience or delay; provided that no judicial officer authorized to solemnize domestic unions shall be required to do so if that act would violate the judicial officer’s sincerely held religious beliefs.

Existing Rhode Island law (15-3-5) lists the officials empowered to join persons in marriage as including:

  • every justice of the supreme court, superior court, family court, workers’ compensation court, district court or traffic tribunal
  • the clerk of the supreme court
  • every clerk or general chief clerk of a superior court, family court, district court, or traffic tribunal
  • magistrates, special or general magistrates of the superior court, family court, traffic tribunal or district court
  • administrative clerks of the district court
  • administrators of the workers’ compensation court
  • every former justice or judge and former administrator of the above courts
  • every former chief clerk of the district court
  • every former clerk or general chief clerk of a superior court
  • judges of the United States appointed pursuant to Article III of the United States Constitution
  • bankruptcy judges appointed pursuant to Article I of the United States Constitution
  • United States magistrate judges appointed pursuant to federal law
  • every justice and every former justice of the municipal courts of the cities and towns
  • former justices of the police court of the town of Johnston
  • every probate judge
  • every former probate judge

SB 376 is currently pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee which will have a hearing on the bill March 10.