Columns

Tyler Rosenbaum ’11: Rhode Island falls behind

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Many of you have probably heard that two more states will join Massachusetts and Connecticut in recognizing same-sex marriages this year. For those of you who haven’t, can you guess which ones they are? One is Vermont. And the other? Oregon, perhaps? Hawaii? Another coastal bastion of liberalness, like, say, Rhode Island? No — it was Iowa. 
Almost more strikingly, the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the state’s statutory prohibition on same-sex marriage was unanimous. The other three courts that have reached the same conclusion did so with bitterly divided 4-3 majorities. 
Iowa, which is squarely located in America’s usually conservative heartland, has left many states on the nation’s more liberal coasts in the dust, putting places like New York and Rhode Island to shame. 

The rest of New England is preparing to follow in Iowa’s footsteps. New Hampshire and Maine look likely to approve marriage equality bills this year, and Vermont’s legislature already overrode Gov. Jim Douglas’ veto of its marriage equality bill by a two-thirds vote. Where is Rhode Island? 

Ever since I first arrived at Brown, I have continually been taken aback by how “liberal” Rhode Island is, which means something coming from a Seattleite. It seems you aren’t allowed to bat an eye without obtaining a permit from both the State of Rhode Island and the city of Providence, but when it comes time to vote, they’ll give a ballot to anyone with a pulse. (No identification, proof of residence, age, citizenship or that you haven’t already voted? No problem!). And though the governor is a Republican, both houses of the General Assembly have more than 89 percent Democrats, a claim no other state can make. 

Given all this, it would seem logical that Rhode Island would be at the forefront of efforts to end marriage discrimination, especially considering that Rhode Islanders support same-sex marriage 49 percent to 37 percent. Unfortunately, however, a series of factors are conspiring to keep the Ocean State from following its neighbors in
New England. 

The most obvious obstacle, of course, is Gov. Donald Carcieri’s ’65 promise to veto any same-sex marriage legislation the General Assembly might pass. After the Vermont decision, Carcieri clearly staked out his position by joining the National Organization for Marriage and supporting its anti-gay marriage campaign. Gubernatorial opposition significantly raises the number of votes same-sex marriage supporters need in both houses of the Assembly. Theoretically, though, this should not pose a significant problem, given Democrats’ overwhelming majorities. Fully one-third of Democrats could vote with the Republicans to sustain Carcieri’s veto and it would still be overridden. 

So, if the real problem does not lie with the people, or even with the governor (who is ineligible for re-election), then where is it? 

Quite simply, it’s a lack of political will, not popular support, that is holding Rhode Island back from guaranteeing marriage equality. The Legislature doesn’t have the votes to explicitly ban gay marriage; nor does it have the will to allow it. Even after the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that two Rhode Island women who were married in Massachusetts could not get divorced in Rhode Island, the people’s representatives couldn’t find it in their hearts to allow them to end their marriage. 

In February, the Judiciary Committee of the Rhode Island Senate held a public hearing on two bills. One of the bills would ban same-sex marriage, and the other would permit it.

Hundreds of people turned out to tell their stories, but in spite of the impassioned testimony, the committee killed both bills, and the lack of support in committee is indicative of the situation in the Legislature as a whole.

In fact, both House Speaker William Murphy and Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed are opposed to allowing gay couples to get married. They claim to be in favor of civil unions, but no bills implementing those suggestions have even been introduced in the 12 years since the legislature first debated same-sex marriage. 

At a marriage rally at the Capitol in Providence, I spoke with a lawmaker who is heavily involved in the struggle to recognize same-sex marriage, who told me that many Rhode Island legislators believe that their constituents are much more conservative than they actually are. Many think that the state’s overwhelming Catholicism implies that their constituents would be opposed to marriage equality, despite opinion polls indicating the contrary. 

When it comes down to it, the majority of current Rhode Island policymakers and jurists do not have the political will to fulfill the Rhode Island Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws. Unless there is a sea change in the current legislature, Rhode Island will continue to fall behind such trend-setters as Massachusetts, Connecticut and, yes, even Iowa. And that is truly a shame.   

Tyler Rosenbaum ’11 is more than 89 percent Democratic.