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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Gay Marriage Looks Likely in Rhode Island This Year

By Joe Siegel -
R.I. Gov. Lincoln Chafee
R.I. Gov. Lincoln Chafee
For the fifteenth year in a row, same-sex marriage activists in the Ocean State are once again girding themselves for a battle to pass a marriage equality bill.

Rep. Arthur Handy, D-Cranston, reintroduced the bill on Thursday, in the hope that a hearing and a vote would occur very soon. State Senator Rhoda Perry (D-Providence) reintroduced the bill in the Senate. In the House, Handy said he had lined up at least 27 co-sponsors. There are 75 members of the House and 38 members of the Senate.

The bill reads: "Any person who otherwise meets the eligibility requirements [in law] may marry any other eligible person regardless of gender." It also states: "No person shall marry" a long list of relatives, including a parent, grandparent, sibling or child of a sibling, and makes clear that no religious institution would be required to perform a civil marriage if it conflicted with its teachings.

Besides Handy, the other lead sponsors include Representatives Frank Ferri, (D-Warwick), Edith Ajello, (D-Providence), Deborah Ruggiero, (D-Jamestown), and the openly gay House Speaker Gordon Fox, (D-Providence), who had said in the days leading up to the start of the 2011 General Assembly session that he hoped for a House vote on same-sex marriage early in the session, before the lawmakers get too involved debating the budget and other issues.

A same-sex marriage bill has never made it to a vote before, and its chances in the Senate remain a question mark, with Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed confirming again recently that she is opposed to the legislation.

But the political environment in the State House has changed over the last year, with Fox’s election as House Speaker and the inauguration on Tuesday of Governor Lincoln Chafee (Independent) who supports gay marriage. Ex-Governor Don Carcieri was a fierce opponent of same.

In his inaugural speech, Chafee urged the General Assembly to pass a marriage equality bill, noting it was the right thing to do. "When marriage equality is the law in Rhode Island, we honor our forefathers who risked their lives and fortune in the pursuit of human equality," Chafee said.

Gay activists were predictably thrilled with the governor-elect’s ringing words at his inauguration. "Governor Chafee has done an amazing job of speaking out for all Rhode Islanders," said Kathy Kushnir, the Executive Director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island.

Equally expectedly, not everyone is thrilled with Chafee’s views on the issue.

Roman Catholic Bishop ThomasTobin, criticized Chafee and legislative leaders for making same-sex marriage a top priority. In a statement to the media, Tobin said the drive to allow same-sex marriage in Rhode Island was "morally wrong and detrimental to the well-being of our state."

"It is particularly disturbing that our new governor, who has trumpeted his desire to bring our state together in unity, would adopt such a very divisive agenda item as one of his first priorities," Tobin said. "His proposal violates the sincere conscience of many of our citizens and inflames passions on both sides of the issue. ... Our state leaders could better serve all Rhode Islanders by working on initiatives that will create jobs and improve the overall economic health of our state."

In a statement released shortly after Chafee’s election last November, Christopher Plante, the Executive Director of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Marriage, chastised Chafee:

"The National Organization for Marriage-Rhode Island is disappointed that Governor-elect Chafee, elected with only 36 percent of the vote, and fewer popular votes than Cool Moose Party Candidate for Lt. Governor Bob Healey, refuses to listen to the voice of over 80% of Rhode Islanders who want the right to vote on marriage," said Plante.

In 2009, NOM-RI commissioned a poll which claimed that as many as 80 percent of the state’s voters wanted the issue placed on a ballot. MERI’s Kushnir dismissed the NOM poll: "This is not a debate about how to delay, obstruct, or deny Rhode Islanders their rights."

Kushnir noted that the voters showed their support for marriage rights for gays and lesbians by electing pro-equality legislators last November. A poll released in August by The Rhode Island Marriage Coalition (RIMC) revealed that 59 percent of Rhode Island voters support allowing same-sex couples to legally marry in the state.
Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.

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