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House to vote today on same-sex marriage

Despite support from Chafee, legislators face opposition from the Catholic Church

The Rhode Island House of Representatives will vote today on a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, marking the first time such a bill has been put to a floor vote in either chamber.

Legislation to legalize same-sex marriage in Rhode Island has been introduced unsuccessfully for more than a decade. Rep. Arthur Handy, D-Cranston, who has introduced the legislation 11 years in a row, said he is “cautiously optimistic” that 2013 will be the year same-sex marriage is legalized in Rhode Island.

The bill has the support of 42 representatives in the House, and a similar bill in the Senate has been endorsed by 11 senators, according to a General Assembly press release.

The bill is virtually guaranteed to pass in the House, because it has the support of more than a majority of representatives, said Sen. Donna Nesselbush ’84, D-Pawtucket, the bill’s first sponsor in the Senate. But passing the bill in the Senate will be more difficult, she added.

The bill’s passage has been stalled in the past by a combination of factors, including former Gov. Donald Carcieri’s refusal to sign a same-sex marriage bill into law, Handy said. But prospects for legalization have improved this year due to the favorable composition of the Senate and the House, President Barack Obama’s statement of public support for same-sex marriage and Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s ’75 P’14 promise to sign such a bill into law, she added.

Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, D-Newport, who has opposed same-sex marriage legislation in the past, has promised to let the Senate vote on the bill if it passes the House, Nesselbush said.

Handy said he has noticed a change in public opinion since he first began introducing the bill, when a large percentage of voters was undecided about same-sex marriage.

Many residents who were previously undecided have now voiced their approval for the legislation, Handy said. According to a September 2012 poll conducted by WPRI, 56 percent of Rhode Island voters favor passing legislation allowing same-sex marriage. Thirty-six percent of residents oppose the legislation, and the remaining 7.8 percent indicated they “don’t know.”

Same-sex marriage is already legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. Rhode Island is the only state in New England that has not legalized same-sex marriage. Handy said a shift in the national climate toward greater acceptance has affected public opinion in the state.

The “recognition by most people that … the sky hasn’t fallen in Massachusetts” has reassured Rhode Island voters, he said.

Civil unions were legalized in Rhode Island last year but were not commonly used, with many couples opting to get married in neighboring states that would give them full rights, The Herald reported.

Civil unions encourage a “separate-but-equal” mentality, Handy said. “You don’t hear of people when they’re young dreaming of getting a civil union. They dream of getting married,” he added.

Nesselbush said the majority of the bill’s opposition comes from religious leaders and individuals who define marriage as strictly a union between two people of opposite sexes.

A rally against same-sex marriage at the State House Jan. 15 — featuring statements from members of the Faith Alliance to Preserve the Sanctity of Marriage, a Rhode Island coalition of religious leaders who oppose same-sex marriage — drew nearly 200 people, the Providence Journal reported.

“This is not a hate message — it’s not that we’re condemning any personal sexual preference,” said Rev. Luis Rodriguez, chairman of the Faith Alliance. “We believe that when we talk about marriage, this should be what’s defined by God ­­—­­ a man and a woman only.”

The Faith Alliance supports a referendum on the issue, which would allow Rhode Islanders to directly vote on same-sex marriage, Rodriguez said.

Chafee has said he will veto any bill that tries to take the issue to referendum, the Providence Journal reported.

Members of the religious community worry the bill would fail to safeguard freedom of religion, forcing some Rhode Islanders to perform services their religion does not condone, Rodriguez said.

The text of the bill includes language that protects church officials from “any civil claim or cause of action” that would result from refusing to solemnize a marriage. The bill would “afford full religious protection so that the Catholic Church and any other particular faith in Rhode Island will never have to perform a gay marriage unless it conforms to the tenets of their faith,” Nesselbush said.

Rodriguez said that though the bill includes these protections in theory, he believes these safeguards will not be guaranteed in practice.

Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Catholic Diocese of Providence has also been vocal in denouncing the same-sex marriage bill, calling it “immoral and unnecessary” in a written statement Jan. 7. Rhode Island has historically been ranked one of the most Catholic states in the country, though a 2010 Gallup poll showed that less than one-third of residents attend church weekly.

Other religious leaders have come out in support of same-sex marriage, including Nicholas Knisely, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island. In a statement to the clergy, Knisely wrote that he supports same-sex marriage, “not in spite of (his) Christian faith, but because of it.”

“Across our congregations and communities, I can see the goodness of gay and lesbian couples and their families,” he wrote.

Many consider legalization of same-sex marriage to be a basic civil rights issue, Handy said.

Rhode Island should be a state that “welcomes people of all persuasions” without the “sting of discrimination” presented by the state’s current laws on marriage, Nesselbush said.

“It’s important that our state embrace full civil rights — including marriage rights — for all Rhode Islanders,” Nesselbush said.  “It’s just a matter of fairness and equal protection and equal justice under the law.”


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