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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Anti-Marriage Group Lobbying Hard in Rhode Island

By Joe Siegel -

With the new governor, the state’s legislature -- and, it seems, the public -- lining up for gay marriage, the major opponent is planning a line-in-the sand offensive.

The Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) launched its first major broadside in the battle to prevent a same-sex marriage bill from being passed by the state’s General Assembly.

Two bills have been introduced which would allow gay and lesbian couples to exchange nuptials.

NOM’s 30-second television ad takes aim at Governor Lincoln Chafee (I) who urged legislators to pass a marriage equality bill soon. Former Governor Don Carcieri, whose two terms in office ended in January, was an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage. Carcieri even endorsed the efforts of NOM to prevent gays and lesbians from getting married in the state.

"Lincoln Chafee got just 36 percent of the vote in the recent election, and fewer popular votes than the Cool Moose Party’s candidate for lieutenant governor," claimed NOM-RI Executive Director Christopher Plante. "Our message is that getting 36 percent of the vote is no mandate to redefine the institution of marriage for all of Rhode Island society."

"Eighty percent of Rhode Islanders want the chance to vote on marriage, just as voters in 31 other states have done," the NOM ad states. It calls on Rhode Islanders to call Chafee’s office, and that of House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Theresa Paiva-Weed to express their views.

The NOM-RI advertisement is running statewide on broadcast and cable stations. The group is spending in excess of $100,000 on the advertisement.

Advocates for marriage equality remain skeptical about NOM’s efforts.

Peter Quesnel, a member of Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), conceded that some people are calling Chafee’s office to voice their opposition to marriage equality. But, he hastened to add, there are plenty of marriage equality supporters who are doing the same.

"The governor is firm in his support and the calls in opposition will not sway him," Quesnel said. "The day after the NOM ad first aired, MERI volunteers gathered at the State House to deliver 13,000 postcards to legislators from every House and Senate district in the state signed by marriage equality supporters in support of passing marriage equality through the legislative process. So we effectively took the headlines away from" NOM.

Kathy Kushnir, MERI’s Executive Director, said the NOM commercial ignores the main issue at stake: bringing equality to gay and lesbian couples. Kushnir noted that NOM’s campaign to influence legislators to put the issue of same-sex marriage on a ballot is not working.

"The people of Rhode Island understand that what they have done over the last election cycle was to send equality supporters to the State House," Kushnir said. Members of the LGBT community and their allies were contacting their elected representatives about passing a same-sex marriage bill, she added.

"No more waiting, no more delaying, no more denying civil rights for same-sex couples," Kushnir emphasized. "The legislature can right that wrong immediately and that’s what the people are asking them to do."

MERI has no plans to run any advertisements on television, preferring to focus their efforts on lobbying legislators. A stinging rebuttal of the NOM ad was produced by a pro-LGBT organization, The video featuring Matt Baume can be seen on You Tube.

"Same-sex marriage enshrines a tragic situation into law," Plante says in the video.

The state’s religious leaders have expressed their scorn for Chafee’s support of same-sex marriage. Bishop Thomas Tobin, the head of the Providence archdiocese, criticized Chafee in a column titled "Has Our State Has Lost Its Soul?"

Tobin wrote: "We have a ton of problems in our state -- a depressed economy, a fragile social service network, a distressed public education system, the demise of the family, a wave of urban crime and domestic violence, and what promises to be an intense and divisive debate created by the ill-advised desire to redefine marriage."

Not all Rhode Islanders who consider themselves Catholic, however, agree with Tobin’s anti-marriage stance. Last week, Archbishop Michael Seneco, presiding bishop of the North American Old Catholic Church, sent a letter to Chafee to express support for his position on marriage equality in the state.

In the letter, the archbishop reminded Chafee that, "there is more than one catholic voice in Rhode Island..." and that the church, and her adherents, "will support the administration and legislature by traveling the road to equality and fairness with them."

The North American Old Catholic Church is a breakaway denomination from Rome. Founded in 2007, it is LGBT inclusive and allows married and gay priests presiding.
Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.

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