Just 68 same-sex couples obtained licenses for civil unions in the state in the first year the option was available to them.
Gay-marriage supporters said the number, announced by the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday, shows that gay and lesbian couples in Rhode Island are shunning civil unions and holding out for marriage.
“A year’s worth of data make it abundantly clear that gay and lesbian couples have emphatically said `I don’t!’ to the civil union law,” RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said in a statement.
Civil union laws in other states with populations similar to Rhode Island’s, about 1 million people, have attracted much more interest. Hawaii issued 106 licenses within one month of a civil union law taking effect there, the ACLU said. Eighty-five licenses were issued in Delaware in the first month civil unions were available there.
Supporters of gay marriage said the relative lack of interest in Rhode Island was due to an exemption in the civil union law that allows houses of worship, religious hospitals, cemeteries and schools to refuse to recognize the civil union relationship.
An opponent of gay marriage took a different view. Chris Plante, director of the National Organization for Marriage-Rhode Island, said the response to civil unions shows the debate “is not about rights but about trying to redefine the institution of marriage.”
Rhode Island lawmakers are expected to take up gay marriage again next year. They approved civil unions for same-sex couples last year after legislation to authorize gay marriage stalled. The civil union law allows gay couples to enter into unions that provide the same state rights and benefits given to married heterosexual couples.
The law, which took effect July 1, 2011, proved unpopular with both sides of the marriage debate. Many supporters of same-sex marriage argued they were a poor substitute for true marriage; opponents argued that civil unions were marriage by another name.
House Speaker Gordon Fox, a Providence Democrat, has vowed to hold a vote on same-sex marriage during the 2013 legislative session, and gay marriage has become one of the top issues in this year’s legislative races.
State Rep. Peter Petrarca, a Lincoln Democrat who sponsored the civil union law, said he isn’t concerned that so few couples have taken advantage of the new law. He said he supports gay marriage but saw civil unions as a pragmatic way to give same-sex couples added rights immediately.
“It was the best thing we could do at the time,” he said. “If same-sex couples want to wait to see what happens (with gay marriage) that’s their right.”
Same-sex marriage is legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C. Maine, Maryland and Washington will vote this fall on proposals to authorize gay marriage. Minnesota voters will be asked if they want to prohibit gay marriage in their state constitution.