Gay marriage supporters and opponents alike gathered at the State House yesterday for the House Judiciary Committee hearing on two bills regarding same-sex marriage in Rhode Island.
The first bill would legalize same-sex marriage, while the second would put to vote next year a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Three hundred people signed up to give testimony at the hearing.
Beforehand, the line to enter the building reached onto the sidewalk outside the north entrance of the State House, and space for hearing attendees had to be expanded to the second and third floors.
The hearing began with debate between state legislators, led by state Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence. Ajello, whose district includes College Hill, was recently named chair of the House Judiciary Committee.
State Rep. Jon Brien, D-Woonsocket, called for the issue to be put to a public vote because it is "larger than this body." He added, "No one group has a fundamental right" to define marriage for the state.
Other representatives countered Brien with the reasoning that marriage equality is a civil rights issue that the government has the power to legislate in order to protect the rights of minority groups such as gays.
"The system has been set up to protect the rights of minorities," said state Rep. Michael Marcello, D-Cranston. "It is only through the system that we protect everyone's rights."
Brien responded that same-sex marriage should not be considered an issue of civil rights because sexual orientation is a matter of choice, while race is not.
State Rep. Charlene Lima, D-Cranston, compared same-sex marriage to female suffrage. She said that in the past, a woman's right to vote would not have passed in a public vote because it was an "emotional issue."
Ajello later stopped the discussion to open the floor for citizen testimony.
After each testimony, representatives asked the speakers questions.
A lawyer who supports gay marriage said she has seen same-sex couples face challenges in attaining the same legal protection they would receive from marriage. Because same-sex couples can't marry, it is more difficult for them to take a leave of absence from work if a partner is ill or to adopt children.
Noah Bareto, an eighth grade student at Cole Middle School in East Greenwich, spoke in favor of the bill. Bareto said he has not seen a difference between children raised by gay parents and children raised by straight parents. "It's not going to affect our lives if someone else is happy," he said.
Many people consider "gay" a synonym for "bad," he said, but he does not agree with that sentiment. "In the Bible they ate children. We don't eat children," he added.
Other gay marriage advocates cited potential economic gains from legalization. According to a representative from the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, legalizing gay marriage could bring the state $1.2 million in the next three years.
Sally Lapides, co-founder of Residential Properties Ltd. in Providence said legalizing gay marriage would encourage more people to live in Rhode Island.
Same-sex marriage opponents called for a public vote and urged the committee to vote against the bill because it constitutes a redefinition of marriage.
The bill would "hurt our children's futures," said lawyer Joe Cavanagh. He said marriage "between a man and a woman" has been the traditional definition "since the beginning of the world."
"Same-sex marriage is an oxymoron," he said.
Other opponents claimed legalizing gay marriage would hurt future generations because children would grow up without fathers.
Listeners outside the hearing differed on their views of the proceedings. Lauren Bonetti, a same-sex marriage supporter, said she is optimistic the bill will pass this year.
Linda Green, who opposes legalization, said she wishes this were not a legal issue. She said she did not want to appear hateful toward the gay community, but claimed the bill's passage would negatively redefine families.
"Where does it end?" she asked. "Where do we draw the line?"