Metro

R.I. same-sex marriage faces final battle in Senate

Chafee ’75 P’14 has promised to approve the same-sex marriage bill if it makes it to his desk

By and
City & State Editors
This article is part of the series Legislating Same-Sex Marriage

As the national debate over same-sex marriage continues to unfold, for the first time in Rhode Island’s history, the governor, the House of Representatives and a majority of state residents all support legalization. The fate of same-sex marriage legalization now lies in the hands of the Senate.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 signed legislation establishing civil unions in 2011 but immediately faced criticism from same-sex marriage activists, who continued to advocate marriage equality.

With democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature, experts speculated in January that 2013 would be the year a same-sex marriage bill — variations of which have been regularly introduced in the General Assembly since 1997 — would finally be passed into law in Rhode Island. The House approved a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in January that is slated for a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee next week.

Rhode Island’s same-sex marriage debate will arrive on campus this Tuesday, April 23rd as The Herald and the Taubman Center for Public Policy host a panel discussion about the ongoing legislative battle.

 

Legislative path

When the General Assembly reviewed same-sex marriage in 2011, spectators said the forceful leadership of Speaker of the House Gordon Fox, D-Providence, could push the legislation through. But Fox said he faced staunch opposition in the Senate and settled for civil unions legislation that gave same-sex couples almost all the benefits granted married couples. But some benefits remain exclusive to heterosexual couples, despite media reports to the contrary.

Fox, one of several openly gay legislators, said he would continue fighting for legalization in future legislative sessions.

The 2012 elections provided a boost for advocates of same-sex marriage. States around the country voted in referendums — for the first time ever — to legalize same-sex marriage, and several former Rhode Island state legislators who oppose legalization lost races to challengers who support it. The boost in support among state senators, combined with national momentum from both President Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s official endorsements of same-sex marriage, helped bring the issue back to the House this year.

Almost as soon as the House opened its 2013 session in January, Rep. Arthur Handy, D-Cranston, introduced legislation to legalize same-sex marriage. The House Committee on the Judiciary took up the bill almost immediately, passing it unanimously Jan. 22. When the legislation arrived on the floor of the House — a first for either chamber of the General Assembly — it passed overwhelmingly. The 51-19 vote split along party lines, with one Republican crossing the aisle to vote with 50 Democrats in support.

In March, the Senate Judiciary Committee reviewed the Senate version of the legislation in an approximately 12-hour hearing. During the hearing — which began at 4:47 p.m. Thursday, March 21 and ran until 5:47 a.m. on Friday March 22, according to the Providence Journal — proponents from both sides rallied both inside and outside of the General Assembly while witnesses testified in opposition to and in favor of the bill.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing made national headlines, and a video of a 12-year-old boy testifying for equal rights for his two mothers went viral.

“Just like you, all (same-sex couples) want is to be treated fairly,” said Matthew Lannon, a sixth grader at the Wheeler School, the Journal reported. “But unlike most of you, they have to come here again, year after year, and explain over and over why their love is equal to yours. This year, you have the opportunity to change that. I say, choose love.”

Two weeks later, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, R-Newport, announced she expects the Senate to vote on same-sex marriage by the end of April. Paiva Weed, who has opposed same-sex marriage legalization since she was first elected to the General Assembly in 1992, said she still personally opposes the policy but will “ensure an open and honest debate in committee and on the (Senate) floor,” the Journal reported.

Neither further hearings nor a chamber vote has been scheduled in the Senate.

 

Community voices

As Rhode Island’s debate over same-sex marriage increasingly receives widespread attention, representatives from national lobbying organizations have joined the debate. Lobbying organizations like the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage, and the Gay and Lesbian Defenders Group, which endorses the policy have come to Rhode Island in full force.

Christopher Plante, a regional director for the National Organization for Marriage and a speaker on The Herald’s panel next week, has been a prominent opponent of same-sex marriage in the state. He has supported putting the question of same-sex marriage to a referendum.

Supporters of same-sex marriage have called Plante a particularly inflammatory and possibly bigoted member of the opposition. GLAAD, an organization that advocates on behalf of the LGBTQ community, has a webpage devoted to Plante’s statements. He has said children living with same-sex parents are in a “tragic situation” because they are denied either a mother or a father, according to the website.

“Rhode Island stands with the vast majority of Americans in understanding that marriage is the union of one man and one woman,” Plante said in an interview with the New York Times.

Advocates for same-sex marriage, like Jason Wu, an attorney with GLAD and a speaker at next week’s panel, argue that civil unions relegate same-sex couples to a “second-class” status that harms the couples and their families.

“It is discrimination that we have marriage for different-sex couples but have created another whole legal structure with a different name for gay and lesbian couples,” Wu wrote in a prepared testimony before the Rhode Island House of Representatives.

Religious leaders have also played integral roles in Rhode Island’s debate over same-sex marriage. Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Providence has received national attention as an opponent of same-sex marriage, and Thomas Petri, a friar in the Order of the Preachers and a speaker at The Herald’s panel, has emphasized his concern that if same-sex marriage is legalized, religious leaders may be forced to perform marriages against their beliefs. But Marriage Equality Rhode Island has convened a coalition of more than 100 state religious leaders to advocate legalization.

The bill currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee exempts religious leaders who oppose same-sex marriage from having to officiate  weddings between individuals of the same sex.

Sen. Frank Ciccone, D-Providence, has introduced a bill in the General Assembly that would put the question of same-sex marriage to a state referendum. That bill would allow small businesses like flower shops and bakeries that oppose same-sex marriage to abstain from providing services to same-sex couples’ weddings.