Gay marriage bills duel in Senate

Testimony went late into the night last Thursday as supporters and opponents of gay marriage discussed a pair of bills before the Senate judiciary committee at the State House.

Bill S0136, introduced by Senator Leo Blais, R-Dist. 21, seeks to amend Rhode Island’s constitution to specify marriage as an institution between a man and a woman. Bill S0147, on the other hand, calls for the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Though several bills supporting gay marriage have been introduced in the state Senate before, proponents of the current bill believe “that there is a better chance than in the past to have fruitful dialogue,” said Susan MacNeil, director of development and communications for the advocacy group Marriage Equality of Rhode Island.

The group has been working on the issue for ten years, but after the November election and the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which eliminated the right to gay marriage in that state, there has been an outpouring of public support for gay marriage, MacNeil said.

“People want to be part of the marriage equality movement,” she said.

Many of the Ocean State’s neighbors have already taken action. Same-sex marriage is currently legal in Connecticut and Massachusetts, while Vermont, New Jersey and New Hampshire have authorized civil unions.

A July poll commissioned by the Marriage Equality group found that 45 percent of Catholics in Rhode Island and 49 percent of all Rhode Islanders support gay marriage.

“We have a tremendous amount of support from the community,” MacNeil said, adding that about 200 people showed up to testify about the bill on Thursday. Though testimony continued until almost midnight, MacNeil said, at least half the Senate judiciary committee stayed until very late, demonstrating a commitment to listening to the community.

According to a 2008 statistical table by U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Rhode Island is the most Catholic state in America.

Michelle Cretella, an advisory board member for the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes gay marriage, said though the state is mostly Catholic, widespread support for gay marriage comes from its “very Democratic” population.

“I think there are a lot of Catholics who sort of follow their own minds,” she said. “They don’t necessarily get in line with the authority of the church.”

But not all community members support same-sex marriage.

Marriage is “more than just a bundle of rights. It’s a public institution that’s intimately tied to family,” Cretella said. “Mothers and fathers – men and women – are different and they each bring unique qualities to child-rearing that two men and two women cannot provide.”

As for the growing support for gay marriage in Rhode Island, Cretella said many people “don’t realize how a gender-neutral definition of marriage may impact them in a negative way.”

Though the pro-gay marriage bill provides for religious communities’ right to make decisions about marriage eligibility, Cretella said the clause is “essentially rendered inconsequential.” She cited the fact that New Jersey-based company eHarmony was forced to accommodate gay clients and that the Catholic Charities of Boston was ordered to place children in same-sex homes.

According to a Feb. 22 Providence Journal article, many public figures in Rhode Island, including Providence Mayor David Cicilline ’83, Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts ’78 and Attorney General Patrick Lynch ’87, have already expressed their support for same-sex marriage legislation.

But even if the bill manages to get out of the judiciary committee and pass a vote on the Senate and House floors, Gov. Donald Carcieri ’65 “is a really significant roadblock” because he will veto it, MacNeil said.

Despite Carcieri’s opposition, MacNeil and her group believe legislative action is the best way to achieve marriage equality, she said, adding that filing a court case has some significant flaws.

“Equal marriage is the civil rights struggle of the 21st century. … The Constitution was not written for only certain groups of people,” MacNeil said.