Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee Reuters

Rhode Island's Senate passed a bill Wednesday night allowing same sex couples to enter into civil unions, despite objections that the legislation continues some forms of discrimination.

In a 21-16 vote, the Senate sent the bill to the desk of Gov. Lincoln Chafee. State Rep. Peter Petrarca, a Democrat and the bill's sponsor, hailed the passage as an example of great progress in our goal of providing increased rights, benefits, and protections for gay and lesbian couples.

Not everyone was as enthusiastic. Gay rights groups said the bill did not go far enough by stopping at civil unions rather than legalizing same sex marriage, a compromise that House Speaker Gordon Fox, a same sex marriage supporter and a Democrat, said was necessary given opposition to same sex marriage.

You're never going to see us trumpet civil unions, said Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Marriage Equality Rhode Island, the group that has led the push for same-sex marriage here. We believe civil unions establish a second-class citizenry.

Gay rights advocates and lawmakers also criticized language in the bill that provides broad exemptions for religious groups that do not wish to recognize the unions -- for example, a Catholic hospital could refuse visitation rights to a member of a civil union. Sen. Rhoda Perry called the bill historic and consequential but added that it is not fair, nor equitable.

Chafee acknowledged the weakness but said the bill was part of a longer process. We're taking incremental steps forward, as other states have, he said. We want to get on the path to full equality, and this is a step on the path.