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Rhode Island Legislature Introduces Gay Marriage Bills

by Joe Siegel
Contributor
Wednesday Jan 9, 2013
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Rhode Island marriage equality activists’ hopes were bolstered that this will be the year when the state’s same-sex couples can get married, after two gay marriage bills were introduced into the General Assembly this week. Openly gay House Speaker Gordon Fox has vowed to bring the bill to a vote before the end of the month, and activists believe there are enough votes in the House to pass the bill.

"Fox is confident that the House will pass a same-sex marriage bill," said Larry Berman, Fox’s press secretary.

Fox joined Reps. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston), Nicholas A. Mattiello, Frank Ferri and Deb Ruggiero in sponsoring House Bill 5015. Handy said 42 of 75 House members had signed on as co-sponsors.

Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket) introduced an identical bill in the Senate. Nesselbush reported that 11 of 38 Senate members had signed on to her bill. The bills would define marriage as the "legally recognized union" of two people.

State Rep. Edie Ajello (D-Providence), a staunch advocate for LGBT rights, believes the House would handily pass the marriage equality bill, but was concerned about how the Senate would vote.

"I am concerned that the Senate might kill the bill or try to turn it into a referendum question," Ajello told EDGE.

Although Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport) opposes same-sex marriage, she said she would allow a vote to take place. Activists hoped that this would give the legislation a fighting chance.

"I am hoping that progressives in the Senate can prevail on their colleagues and leadership to vote a clean bill up or down and that grassroots activists will make good cases to their senators who may be waivering," Ajello said.

Senator Dawson Hodgson (R-East Greenwich) told EDGE he would not support a referendum.

"I will vote to support equal protection of the law. I believe that in the eyes of government only, ’marriage’ is a collection of rights, benefits and privileges," Hodgson said. "If government bestows such a legal benefit to two citizens, it must be extended to any two citizens, irrespective of gender or sexual orientation."

Last November, voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington all approved marriage rights for same-sex couples. Ray Sullivan, Campaign Director for Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), is happy with the election results but wants state lawmakers to decide the fate of same-sex marriage.

"It is never appropriate to allow the majority of voters in a state to determine the freedoms of a minority group -- that’s the job of our courts and legislatures," Sullivan said. "And to that end, we are emboldened by the momentum of this election cycle and will steadfastly work to make 2013 the year that Governor Chafee finally signs marriage equality into law."


Roman Catholic Church Oppose Bills, Other Clergy Support It

Opposition to the bills came from Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, who called on legislators to against same-sex marriage.

Tobin labeled same-sex marriage as "immoral and unnecessary" in a column in the Rhode Island Catholic.

"The proposal to legalize same-sex marriage is an attempt to redefine the institution of marriage as it has existed in every culture from the very beginning of human history," wrote Tobin in the Jan. 7 article.

"Marriage between a man and a woman was designed by God for two specific purposes: to affirm the complementary roles of males and females in a loving relationship, and to provide a stable foundation for the procreation and raising of children. Homosexual relationships can achieve neither of those goals."

But a coalition of religious leaders who favor marriage equality for same-sex couples countered Tobin’s statement with one of their own.

"The Bible teaches us that we are all God’s children -- created in His image -- with an obligation to love and serve one another in this world. It is in that spirit of faith and tolerance that I’m proud to announce that a coalition of more than 100 clergy, representing 13 different denominations, is being engaged to help lead the fight to win marriage equality," said Rev. Gene Dyszlewski, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and chair of the Rhode Island Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality.

Dyszlewski said his group would focus on "building an active grassroots network of Rhode Islanders who believe that all loving, committed couples should be recognized, respected and treated equally under the law."

Meanwhile, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) is encouraging its supporters to contact their legislators and tell them to vote ’no.’

"Despite what you have read and heard, the redefinition of marriage is not inevitable in Rhode Island; there is a clear path to victory for those who believe that this unique and blessed institution is defined as the union of one man and one woman," NOM president Brian Brown wrote on the group’s website. "But that path starts now, and it starts with you calling your representative today."

The state moved one step closer to legalizing same-sex marriage when Governor Lincoln Chafee (I) signed an Executive Order last May mandating the state government to officially recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

A same-sex marriage bill has been introduced every year since 1997 but has never made it out of committee for a floor vote. Chafee signed a civil union bill into law in July 2011.

But only 68 Rhode Islanders have obtained civil union licenses, according to data the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said it got from the Department of Health. Public support for gay marriage has continued to increase.

A poll released last November by WPRI showed an overwhelming majority of Rhode Islanders now support marriage equality and equal rights for same-sex couples. The poll, which surveyed 501 likely voters from Sept. 26-29, 2012, showed that 56 percent now support marriage equality, while only 36 percent oppose it.


Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.

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