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New momentum for gay marriage at the State House

Bolstered by support from newly elected Governor Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14, legislation to legalize gay marriage in Rhode Island has a better chance of passage than in years past.

Gay marriage has long been debated in Rhode Island politics, but the departure of former Governor Donald Carcieri '65, a gay marriage opponent, has renewed supporters' efforts to legalize it.

Openly gay state House Speaker Gordon Fox has voiced his support for legalization. But state Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, who is opposed to legalizing gay marriage, has the power to prevent a vote on the Senate version of the bill.

The "fantastically positive difference is that the governor has pledged not to veto the bill," said Sen. Rhoda Perry P'91, D-Providence, who introduced the Senate bill.

The legislature would need a supermajority to override the governor's veto, but "we don't have to worry about that now" because Chafee is a gay marriage supporter, she said.

"I truly think that it's not so much a matter of allowing a vote as much as being an astute politician," Perry said.

Paiva Weed "knows how to count," Perry said. "She knows who is for, who is against," she added. If there are votes for this bill, even one more than a majority, Paiva Weed would allow the vote, Perry said.

A marriage license does not come from a church and is similar to picking up any other permit or license from the State House, Perry said.

Identical bills in both houses of the General Assembly state that any religious institution would have "exclusive control over its own religious doctrine, policy and teachings regarding who may marry within their faith and on what terms" and stipulate that the government cannot interfere "in any way" with religious institutions' decisions.

Executive Director for the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Marriage Christopher Plante said he does not think the bills will pass. According to Plante, the vast majority of people in Rhode Island do not want same-sex marriage legalized.

"Homosexual marriage is not a separate thing," Plante said. "Same-sex marriage is a re-definition of marriage."

Plante said there should be a public referendum on the issue rather than having it decided in the state legislature.

"We propose to put it to the people," Plante said. He added that if the state allows a public vote on other issues — like the state's name and rules governing casinos — then it should allow one on marriage equality.    

Gay marriage supporters argue that since marriage equality is an issue of civil rights, putting the bill through the state legislature is the only fair route.

"Civil rights issues should not be decided by referendum," said Seth Magaziner '06, a volunteer for Marriage Equality Rhode Island. "Our government exists to protect the rights of minority groups."

Rhode Island pollster Victor Profughi also said that whether to put the issue to a referendum "boils down to whether one sees it as a civil rights issue or not."

Quest Research, Profughi's polling firm, conducted a survey for the National Organization for Marriage in July 2009. The poll found that the vast majority — 74 percent of Rhode Islanders — wanted a public referendum on this issue. Fifty-two percent supported the statement, "Only a marriage between a man and a woman will be valid or recognized in Rhode Island," while 38 percent did not.

But many people are apathetic about the gay marriage issue, Profughi added.

"It's not on the agenda for most Rhode Islanders," he said.

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Washington, D.C.-based survey group, polled Rhode Island voters on gay marriage for Marriage Equality Rhode Island. In 2006, 2008 and 2010 overall support for same-sex marriage has been higher than opposition, the poll found. In 2010, support for marriage equality rose by 10 percent from 2008, with an 11 percent increase in those who strongly support it. Opposition has steadily decreased over the years, with a 6 percent drop overall from 2008, according to the poll.

Kathy Kushnir, executive director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, said legalization advocacy groups in Rhode Island outnumber the opposition.

"Rhode Island is ready for marriage equality," she said. "The people are demanding that everyone be treated equally."


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