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Gay marriage bills stall in legislature

Though gay marriage has the backing of Rhode Island's governor and its Speaker of the House, bills to legalize it have yet to be put to a vote. Opponents say the bills simply do not have enough support from state legislators.  

Hearings for gay marriage bills have taken place in both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.

State Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, chairs the committee that has considered the bill in the House. She said she is confident gay marriage will be legalized.

But votes on the bills remain "on a knife's edge," said Christopher Plante, executive director for the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Marriage. He added that if House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, had enough support for the bill, he would already be calling for a vote. Fox, who is openly gay, strongly backs gay marriage.

Sen. Rhoda Perry, D-Providence, said the Senate is awaiting a House vote. "It's a very emotional issue," Perry said, adding that legislators were "all sitting on tenterhooks, waiting to see what happens."

Perry said Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Jamestown and Newport, who personally opposes gay marriage, has not officially stated whether or not she will hold a Senate floor vote on the bill.

Gay marriage opponents have sought to place the issue on the ballot. In a 2009 Brown survey of registered Rhode Island voters, 60 percent of respondents said they supported gay marriage.

Perry said she opposes a public vote. "Referendums are mechanisms that frequently hurt the rights of minority groups," she added.

A bill allowing same-sex couples, siblings or anyone above the age of 18 to become "reciprocity beneficiaries" and gain rights to make partners' medical decisions is being considered as an alternative to legalization. The National Organization for Marriage is pushing for this option rather than civil unions, Plante wrote in an email to The Herald.

Ajello said she does not know when a vote for the legalization bill will be scheduled. The House Judiciary Committee has not yet finished hearing all of the bills for this legislative session and has not voted on any "important" bills so far, she said.

A recent hearing soliciting public input on the legislation ran until 1 a.m. "I have never gotten more messages in support of this legislation," Ajello said.

Gabe Schwartz '13, co-director of the Queer Political Action Committee and a gay marriage supporter, said the fate of gay marriage in the state is by no means certain. While there is more support than expected, Schwartz said he is concerned that competing civil union and ballot bills will divert attention from legalization. He opposes a referendum because he fears spending on advertising by groups like the National Organization for Marriage could sway the results.

"It's now or never," Schwartz said.



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