Bill would put gay marriage to referendum

The joint resolution would ask voters to accept or reject an amendment to the state’s constitution

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, March 21, 2013

A joint resolution that could legalize same-sex marriage but allow religious organizations and small business owners to refuse marriage services to same-sex couples is scheduled for a hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee today.

Sen. Frank Ciccone, D-Providence, proposed the resolution Wednesday to place the measure on the 2014 ballot.

If the General Assembly passes the resolution and voters pass the amendment, the state’s constitution will be altered to “recognize and define marriage in the state of Rhode Island as a legally recognized union of two people,” according to the resolution.

The issue of same-sex marriage should be settled by the public, Ciccone said. “One hundred and thirty legislators should not rule on the matter.”

Though he is personally opposed to same-sex marriage legalization, he said, “If the voters are in favor of it, then that’s fine.”

The resolution includes measures that would allow religious leaders, religious organizations and small businesses to refuse marriage-related services to same-sex couples. Under this amendment, religious leaders who oppose same-sex marriage would not be required to solemnize such marriages, and small business owners in the wedding industry, such as florists and bakers, would be protected from lawsuits if they refuse to serve same-sex couples “based on (their) stringent religious beliefs,” Ciccone said.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 previously announced he would veto any legislation attempting to put same-sex marriage on the ballot for a public vote.

But a resolution prompting a referendum for a constitutional amendment “is not an act that can be vetoed” under the Rhode Island constitution, Ciccone said. “Unless (Chafee) plans to rewrite the R.I. constitution, I have no knowledge on how he plans to (veto the resolution).”

The resolution has drawn criticism from supporters of same-sex marriage legislation who say the public should not be voting on the civil rights of other citizens and the resolution’s religious protections leave room for discrimination.

Ciccone’s resolution is not “an appropriate compromise. We don’t see it as being a viable solution,” said Ray Sullivan, campaign director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island. He added that he does not think the resolution will garner enough support to pass in the House of Representatives, especially since openly gay Speaker of the House Gordon Fox opposes the legislation.

The text of the resolution also “includes some harmful exemption language that allows small businesses and individuals to proactively discriminate against gay and lesbian individuals and couples,” Sullivan said.

Many of the state’s religious leaders oppose Ciccone’s referendum resolution, including the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, the Rhode Island State Council of Churches and Nicholas Knisely, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, he said.

Same-sex marriage opponent Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Catholic Diocese of Providence lauded the resolution for advancing “the discussion in a positive and democratic way, while at the same time safeguarding the rights of all parties,” according to a statement.

Though the Rhode Island Roman Catholic Church opposes same-sex marriage, Ciccone’s resolution “presents an eminently reasonable approach to this divisive issue,” Tobin said in the statement. “The citizens of Rhode Island have a right to vote on this crucial issue,” he added.

When the Senate Judiciary Committee convenes today, legislators will also hear a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in the state, introduced by Sen. Nesselbush ’84, D-Pawtucket. The House version of the bill passed in January.


  1. Why would a state spend money on a referendum on gay marriage when the Supreme Court is about to hear a case that could make obsolete or nullify that referendum. It makes no sense. Sounds more like Sen. Ciccone is trying to win points with same-sex marriage opponents, and little more.

    • This would actually be worse than waiting for the SCOTUS to affirm same sex marriage rights. If passed, this bill would allow discrimination by businesses based on sexual orientation. Can you imagine a business being allowed to discriminate against any other minority other than us? If the SCOTUS affirms the rights of LGBT people to marry, and this measure is on the ballot in 2014, LGBT groups need to work to defeat it.

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