Rhode Island Representative Peter Petrarca introduced a civil unions bill on Tuesday angering gay marriage supporters, the AP repported.

Petrarca's proposed legislation would give gay and lesbian couples the same rights as marriage in the state. However, such unions receive no federal recognition.

While the government's Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) bans federal agencies from recognizing the marriages of gay and lesbian couples, federal judges in at least two challenges now on appeal have declared portions of the law unconstitutional. If DOMA were overturned – or, less likely, repealed by Congress – then the relationships of gay couples in civil unions would not be recognized by the federal government.

“Some sort of progress is better than nothing,” Petrarca, who supports gay marriage, said.

Gay marriage supporters gathered at the Statehouse to protest the move.

The more than 200 protesters, led by Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), vented their angered at House Speaker Gordon Fox, who last week announced the gay marriage proposal has “no realistic chance” of being approved in the General Assembly this session. Fox, who is gay and backs marriage equality, said he would shift away from marriage and toward civil unions for gay couples.

Angry protesters insisted separate is never equal and vowed to force a vote on marriage.

Democratic Representative Arthur Handy, the sponsor of the gay marriage bill, said he would introduce an amendment to Petrarca's civil union bill, thus forcing a House vote this year on the issue. Many supporters believe Handy's bill would have cleared the House. Less likely is the Senate, where Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed has said she supports civil unions but not marriage for gay couples.

Fox responded that such a move would jeopardize the civil unions bill.
“The result … would be to kill the civil unions bill, thus denying long-overdue rights to same-sex couples in Rhode Island,” Fox said in a statement. “I don't know why Representative Handy would attempt to deny these important rights, and I hope he gives great thought to its negative impact on same-sex couples before offering such an amendment.”

The Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Marriage said it opposes both bills.

“It's same-sex marriage by another name,” said Chris Plante, the group's director. “It is a backdoor way into legalizing gay marriage. I believe that we will be able to peel off significant amounts of votes once [lawmakers] understand that.”

The shift comes just weeks after a gay marriage bill died in the Maryland House.