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Friday, February 4, 2011

Should R.I. lawmakers place marriage equality on the ballot?

By Joe Siegel -
State Rep. Jon Brien [D-Woonsocket]
State Rep. Jon Brien

With Rhode Island poised to become the latest state to allow gay and lesbian couples to wed, one lawmaker plans to file a bill that would allow voters to decide the issue.

State Rep. Jon Brien (D-Woonsocket) plans to put forth a measure that would ask voters to approve or reject a constitutional amendment specifying "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in the State of Rhode Island" in 2012.

Brien said he believes marriage is a very important issue because the union "serves as a societal cornerstone."

A House Judiciary Committee hearing on the marriage equality bill, which state Rep. Art Handy (D-Cranston) sponsored, has been rescheduled for next Wednesday, Feb. 9.

In his inaugural address last month, Gov. Lincoln Chafee urged legislators to pass the measure. And he pledged to sign the marriage equality bill into law.

An Aug. 2010 survey the National Organization for Marriage’s Rhode Island chapter conducted found 82 percent of respondents said Ocean State residents should have the right to vote on the definition of marriage.

NOM is encouraging their supporters to call and e-mail legislators to urge them to allow voters to decide the issue, but a poll Marriage Equality Rhode Island conducted last year found 59 percent of respondents support nuptials for gays and lesbians.

"Everyone has the right to their opinion about this, and many people hold passionate views on both sides," said Brien. "These differing opinions are informed by a host of factors including upbringing, personal experience, faith background, ethnic and cultural traditions, and other factors. When you have this kind of a fundamental issue with such importance to society, where people feel passionately on both sides, the proper thing to do is to allow the people themselves to decide. The people are the sovereign rulers in Rhode Island, not the politicians, and putting the issue on the ballot for the people to decide is the right thing to do."

State Sen. Nicholas Kettle (R-Coventry) supports Brien’s proposal.

"I have a problem with 113 individuals deciding the definition of marriage," he told EDGE in an e-mail. "If we change it then I would like to see a ballot referendum.
Marriage equality activists criticized Brien’s proposed legislation.

"It is never appropriate for the civil rights of the minority to be voted on by the majority, and make no mistake, this is an issue of civil rights," said Lauren Nocera. "We have a representative democracy for a reason and that is the appropriate mechanism to address this issue."

Providence resident Wendy Becker agreed.

"Rep. Brien should imagine for one minute what it would feel like to have his rights voted on; he would quickly understand that civil rights should never be put to a popular vote," she said. "I can’t think of a time in history that a popular vote has ever expanded or secured rights for a minority group as the majority is reluctant to give up power or fearful of change. I don’t want to live in a state that is allows its citizens to institutionalize discrimination under the guise of ’let the people decide.’ Since when do we let the people decide to discriminate?"

Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.

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