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Same-sex marriage (SSM) in Rhode Island

2011: Renewed effort to pass SSM law fails.
House Judiciary Committee holds hearing.


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2011-FEB: Renewed effort:

A bill to legalize SSM in Rhode Island was introduced into the legislature every year since Rep. Michael Pisaturo, (D-Cranston) proposed the first bill in 1997.

Most of the candidates for governor during 2010 supported SSM. Lincoln D. Chafee took office in 2011-JAN. Formerly a Republican, he disaffiliated from the party and became an independent, becoming the first Independent governor in the state's history.

On 2009-JUN-18, he had discussed his position on same-sex marriage on the Huffington Post. He said:

"To me, the issue of same-sex marriage boils down to a question of basic fairness. Gays and lesbians have contributed to the diverse fabric of Rhode Island and the rest of the country for generations, strengthening our communities in innumerable ways. We all know someone who is openly gay or lesbian, and almost all of us share the same basic aspirations: a safe town and an affordable home to live in; a good job to provide us and our families with economic security; good schools for our children; quality health care; and, perhaps most importantly, someone to love and share our lives with. Once you acknowledge that homosexuality exists not by choice, the next obvious step is to grant gays and lesbians the same liberties and freedoms as every other American."

"As a proud Rhode Islander who thinks of my state as a leader when it comes to treating others with dignity and respect, it troubles me to think we've fallen behind in granting our gay and lesbian family members and friends something as fundamentally important as the right to have their relationships fully recognized by the state. That is not in keeping with Rhode Island's proud history of inclusion and progressiveness. ..."

"Rhode Island legislators should follow in the footsteps of our fellow New England states and be true to our pioneering history of tolerance by advancing a marriage equality bill. But for that to happen, all of us in Rhode Island who believe in full equality need to do our part by voicing support for same-sex marriage loudly and clearly."

During his JAN-04 inaugural speech, Governor Lincoln Chafee (D) asked the legislature to consider a same-sex marriage authorization bill. He said that it would have economic benefits to the state. Two days later, on JAN-04, a same-sex marriage bill titled: "Marriage Equality Act" was introduced in the legislature. 1 If passed by the legislature and signed into law, it would have immediately taken effect.

The Christian Post reported:

"Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Catholic Diocese of Providence criticized the governor’s statements and asked that voters be allowed to decide the issue. Rhode Island’s openly gay House Speaker, Gordon Fox, is against a referendum. 2

On FEB-09, a rally attracted pro and anti-marriage equality advocates to the State House. The Providence Journal published a photograph showing two attendees waving colorful "Straight for Equality" signs. There were also "Love thy Constituents," Vote for Love," "Support all Marriages," "Equality -- It's Time" signs. One brave soul in the middle of a bunch of SSM supporters waved a blue and white sign with a Christian cross symbol and the text: "1 Man + 1 Women = Marriage." Of course, one man and one woman would still be able to marry even if marriage equality was achieved. However, the bill would have allowed same-sex couples also to marry. Among the crowd, Adam Jaquith expressed his opposition to SSM. He said: "! am a Christian man. I believe that God loves everyone. I have gay friends, but I believe that God has made it one man for one woman for marriage."

The Journal stated that opponents argued:

"... that nothing less than the soul of Rhode Island, the well-being of its children and the 'sanctity of marriage' are at stake in a year when the state’s new governor and openly gay House speaker are enthusiastically backing gay nuptials."

More than 200 people crowded into the rotunda. A similar number were held outside. Because of the size of the crowd, the Capitol Police, temporarily closed off one entrance to the State House.

Arguments from both sides were heard in a House Judiciary Committee hearing:

  • Governor Chafee wrote a statement to the Committee stating:

    "I support the Marriage Equality Act as a matter of fundamental fairness."

    "In 1967, the United States Supreme Court held that 'the freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men [sic].' Today, same-sex couples — loving, productive and valued members of our community — are not free to exercise this right in Rhode Island. They are not free to form a public social contract that all agree promotes family stability and provides social, financial and legal benefits to its participants."

    "This is not acceptable to me and should not be acceptable to anyone else. When we deprive gay and lesbian Rhode Islanders of the freedom to marry, we not only deny them a fundamental right guaranteed by our Constitution, we also diminish the freedom and liberty of all Rhode Islanders."

  • Kim Stowell, spokesperson for Marriage Equality Rhode Island said:

    "We’re more hopeful than ever. Times are changing. Everyone knows a gay person today. It’s harder to say gay people can’t get married when you are talking about someone you know."

  • President Lise M. Iwon of the Rhode Island Bar Association recited a list of legal obstacles that her same-sex couple clients face because they are not allowed to marry. She mentioned that:

    "Clients spend thousands of dollars on wills, estate planning, relationship agreements, powers of attorney, adoptions and other documents trying to plan for every eventuality, every tragedy, every mundane circumstance. But no matter how many or what safety nets I try to help them put in place, there is simply no way to provide them with the full scope of protections they would automatically receive if we were able to marry."

    "... because we cannot marry [gay and lesbian couples who conceive a child via artificial insemination] must incur enormous financial expense and emotional stress of having the second parent adopt the child [including] criminal background checks, a six-month waiting period, a home study, and adoption hearing."


    In reality, a SSM law in Rhode Island would allow loving, committed same-sex couples to marry, but would only bring them about 300 state benefits of marriage. The 1,100 or so federal benefits that opposite-sex married couples automatically receive would be denied them because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Still, it would be a start.

  • Mark Goldberg, who led the 2009 battle for legislation that permits same-sex partners to make funeral arrangements for each other said:

    "In addition to being the right thing to do, passing this law could have an economic benefit to the state. Being a gay man, which often equates to good taste, I am going to hire only the finest caterers, florists, venue and entertainment. I can easily find the best of the best, right here in R.I. Imagine a whole new set of prospective clients to the many businesses here in our state pumping money into the economy."

  • Sen. Harold Metts, (D-Providence), an African American who is opposed to SSM, argued that the battle to attain marital equality is unrelated to the anti-segregation civil rights movement in the mid-20th Century. He said that "... many in my community do not think that what people do in the bedroom, the privacy of their bedroom, is civil rights." Actually, lesbians, gays and bisexuals won the right many years ago to engage in sexual activities with their partner. Today's battle is over the right to marry, not the right to have sex.

  • Rev. Bernard Healey, of the Catholic diocese, said that marriage is much more than a "bundle" of social benefits; it is an institution to be preserved." He presumably means that it must be preserved for opposite-sex couples only. He is absolutely right. That is why so many lesbians, gays and bisexuals in loving committed relationships fight hard for same-sex marriage rather than accept civil unions; they want the commitment, status, public acceptance, and protections of marriage.

  • Maggie Gallagher, is the chairperson and founder of the National Organization for Marriage, whose sole goal is to prevent same-sex marriage. She introduced the concept of "responsible parenthood" that is now being promoted by religious and social conservatives. She said that: "We do not believe that our marriage laws are discriminatory. We think that marriage is the union of husband and wife for a reason … [because] the unions really are unique. They are the only ones that can make [new] lives and connect those children in love to their mother and father."

    Lesbian and gay couples usually rely on artificial insemination or in-vitro fertilization to conceive; the result is that the children contain DNA components from only one of the parents. Alternately they adopt, in which case neither parent contributes to their children's DNA. These are the the same arrangements as are experienced by infertile opposite-sex couple -- who Maggie Gallagher presumably feels are also practicing irresponsible parenthood.

    Full disclosure: I am an adoptive parent of a daughter -- a professor at Ryerson University -- of whom I am very proud. But I am as mad as Hell at Maggie for denigrating my family because of a lack of a DNA link between me and my daughter.

  • Local lawyer Joseph V. Cavanagh also mentioned responsible parenthood. He said that:
    "... by leaping into this abyss, we will undermine forever the ideal that marriage between a man and woman is the preferred family — which it should be and always has been in human history. It doesn't mean that same-sex couples can’t have relationships. But let’s not redefine marriage. The difference is the difference. It’s a man and a woman who only themselves, uniquely coming together, can perform this act of love between themselves, to have a child, children, and raise them. That’s what we’re talking about. That’s what marriage is. ... Same-sex marriage with all due respect, is an oxymoron."
  • Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, president of The Ruth Institute, drew comparisons between the fight against abortion access and the fight for the principle that children "need a mother and father."

  • Christopher Plante, executive director of the local chapter of the Alliance Defense Fund -- a fundamentalist Christian legal advocacy organization said: "The ball is slowing down, if not going backwards." He presumably is referring to his impression of trends in the level of support of same-sex marriage. Actually, the rate of change of support for SSM in the U.S. seems to have surged ahead in in the past two years.
The Committee did not take a vote at the conclusion of the hearing. 3 The bill is now dead. However, most adults in the state support same-sex marriage. With the gap between those supporting and those opposing SSM increasing at about 20 percentage points per decade, the bill is bound to be re-introduced in the future.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "An act relating to domestic relations -- Persons eligible to marry," State of Rhode Island, http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/ This is a PDF file.
  2. Stephanie Samuel, "NOM: Gay Rights Advocates Desperate to Gain Ground ," Christian Post, 2011-FEB-10, at: http://www.christianpost.com/
  3. Katherine Gregg & Tom Mooney, "R.I. same-sex marriage bill packs the halls," Providence Journal, 2011-FEB-10, at: http://www.projo.com/
  4. Lincoln Chafee, "Gay marriage: A question of fairness," The Huffington Post, 2009-JUN-18, at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/

Copyright © 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2011-FEB-21
Latest update: 2011-JUN-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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