Lawmakers in the Rhode Island General Assembly have proposed legislation to legalize same-sex marriage in the state every year since 1997.
A poll conducted last year by Public Policy Polling, a national polling company focused on politics, shows that a majority of Rhode Island voters support same-sex marriage, and Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 has previously said he would sign such legislation into law. But the bill faces opposition from a Catholic voter base and conservative legislators.
While some same-sex marriage advocates believe the Ocean State will eventually follow the lead of its New England neighbors and legalize same-sex marriage, re-election campaigns and religion are likely to prove barriers to passage in 2012.
The General Assembly passed legislation last summer legalizing civil unions between same-sex couples in the state. But lobbyists for marriage equality point out that less than 50 couples have chosen to take advantage of the option.
“Civil unions try to establish a separate-but-equal status, though they actually create second-class citizenry for gay and lesbian couples,” said Ray Sullivan, campaign director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island.
But some opponents argue the civil union law has already gone too far.
“Because the civil union status is most often used as a stepping stone … it makes the redefinition of marriage somewhat easier,” wrote John Ritchie, director of student activities at the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, in an email to The Herald.
Sullivan said Rhode Island’s same-sex couples have shown “dramatically less interest” in the civil union option when compared to couples in other states – like Hawaii and Delaware - that have passed the same legislation. This pattern suggests the local LGBTQ community is dedicated to realizing full marriage equality, he said. Sullivan added that Rhode Island’s proximity to states where same-sex marriage is legal – like bordering states Massachusetts and Connecticut – offers an accessible alternative to civil unions.
“Marriage is the gold standard,” Sullivan said. “It comes with instant recognition and instant acknowledgement of what the institution means.”
Ritchie also argued that terminology is key. “Since homosexual behavior is reversible, not natural, not genetic, unhealthy and 100 percent sterile, it would be wrong for the state to grant it the same legal rights and privileges that married couples deserve and enjoy,” he wrote.
Last year’s civil union legislation included an amendment by Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence, which led the LGBTQ community to vehemently oppose the bill.
The Corvese Amendment allows religiously affiliated organizations, like hospitals, to deny recognition of the civil unions outlined in the legislation.
Sullivan said the amendment could allow religiously affiliated hospitals to discriminate against same-sex couples by preventing a partner in a civil union from viewing his or her partner in the intensive care unit.
Ritchie said the amendment protects the rights of religious institutions that do not approve of same-sex relationships.
“If tolerance is what they believe and promote, they should tolerate the rights of Rhode Island Catholics who follow the Ten Commandments,” Ritchie wrote. “They should tolerate every American who cherishes natural law based marriage.”
MERI believes in the rights of religious institutions, but “the state should not give a religiously affiliated organization the authority to operate outside the law,” Sullivan said.
Lobbyist groups have been working with legislators to repeal the amendment since it was signed into law.
“What was put into the civil unions bill overstepped what we think of as a normal request,” said Sen. Rhoda Perry P’91, D-Providence.
Rhode Island is the most Catholic state in the nation, and the majority of the state’s voters identify as Democrats.
Catholic majorities among constituents may keep certain legislators from supporting the marriage equality bill. “It’s kept some of the folks who represent those districts from supporting it to the degree you would need to ensure passage,” said Brett Broesder, a former policy and legislative director for the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General.
“The Church has always taught that homosexual behavior is a sin and violates … divine law based on the Ten Commandments,” Ritchie said.
”Same-sex marriage legislation is about distorting a venerable institution,” said Thomas Tobin, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Providence in a press release.
More than 60 percent of Rhode Islanders are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, according to recent statistics, Sullivan said.
But Sullivan does not think Catholic constituents will prevent the legislation from passing.
“There is a significant disconnect between the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church and the people who are attending Mass on Sunday,” Sullivan said. Many Catholics in Rhode Island support same-sex marriage despite the Church’s stance on the issue, he added.
Sullivan noted that Massachusetts also has a large Catholic population but was able to pass same-sex marriage legislation.
The upcoming state elections will also play into the discussion this year. Many legislators are up for re-election in November and may be hesitant to vote on contentious issues, Perry said.
Legislators in more conservative districts will attempt to keep the issue from dominating the State House agenda, while proponents will attempt to be “vocal about the issue,” Broesder said. Re-election campaigns in conservative districts could be a major factor in preventing the bill’s passage, he added.
“Our leaders and elected officials have an interest and duty to protect and foster true, stable marriages,” Ritchie said.
But Perry pointed to poll results that indicate most Rhode Islanders would favor the bill. “The beauty of it all is that if they looked at the numbers that support marriage equality, they might reconsider,” she said.
MERI is focusing on making sure the constituents who support marriage equality in the polls are voicing their concerns with their legislators.
“At some point, those legislators who continue to ignore the will of their constituents – it’s going to catch up with them at the ballot box,” Sullivan said.
The national sentiment from the Democratic Party suggests that same-sex marriage legislation is gaining support and popularity, Broesder said.
Similar legislation passed recently in Maryland and New York. Governors from both states were “staunch proponents” of same-sex marriage and are considered potential candidates for the Democratic ticket in the 2016 presidential race, Broesder said.
Getting the Rhode Island movement in line with the national trends could help garner support from national lobbyists who “want to put money into it,” Broesder said. Their support would only further the cause and make passage in Rhode Island more
probable, he added.
But not everyone is convinced that these trends can predict Rhode Island’s future.
“Rhode Island has a long history of being independent, and the fact that other states have adopted this ill-advised social experiment doesn’t sway me at all,” Tobin said in the press release.
Perry was quick to caution that passage may still be a long-term goal.
Before either of the chambers can vote on the legislation, the bills will have to pass through their respective judiciary committees. “The Senate Judiciary Committee – as a body – is conservative,” Perry said. “When you have a conservative body, no matter what is offered in exchange, you’re not going to see too much bend, if any at all.”
Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Jamestown and Newport, has been vocal in her opposition to same-sex marriage. Perry said Paiva Weed would not bring the bill to the Senate floor unless she absolutely knew there would be enough votes for passage.
But the upcoming elections, which may prevent passage this year, could add Democratic support in the General Assembly to ease passage in the coming years, she said.
“The beauty of an election year is that you’re going to get a whole new freight of people coming in,” Perry said.
When Perry was first elected to the Senate, she said she was unable to find a single co-sponsor for the marriage equality legislation she proposed at the time, she said. Now, she said she was able to find eight supporters in the Senate, “easy.”