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Do RI Voters Want to Decide Gay Marriage at the Polls?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Should Rhode Island voters decide gay marriage at the polls? One organization believes so and says 78 percent of the state agrees with them.

It’s been a quiet few weeks in the battle over same sex marriage in Rhode Island but that doesn’t mean the two sides have taken any time off from pushing forward with their agenda as the state awaits word from the Senate Judiciary Committee on when the controversial social issue will again come up for discussion.

In fact, it appears things are heating up once again.

A poll released yesterday by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) revealed that 78 percent of Rhode Island voters want to decide the issue in a statewide election, numbers that don’t quite line up with a similar poll conducted two weeks ago by the Public Policy Polling group that said 57 percent of their respondents supported legalizing gay marriage outright.

To Vote or Not to Vote

Christopher Plante, Regional Coordinator for NOM, said the results are clear and show the measure should be decided at the polls.

“It has been clear for years that the vast majority of people in Rhode Island want and deserve the right to vote on the definition of marriage, just as those in 35 other states,” he said. “This year the State Senate has before it resolution 0096 to put the question to the people. That 78% of respondents agree Rhode Islanders deserve the same opportunity will hopefully move the senate to reject redefining marriage and instead put the decision to the people.”

Not to be outdone, the group Rhode Islanders United for Marriage quickly offered a retort to the poll, disputing its findings and saying the matter isn’t one that should ever be decided by a state election.

 “Fundamental human and civil rights do not belong on the ballot. Moreover, minority rights should not be subjected to a popular vote of the majority,” said Devin Driscoll, communications director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage. “It is telling, however, that NOM intentionally chose not to ask Rhode Islanders whether they support marriage equality – and that’s because they already know the answer is a resounding yes. Every public survey over the past two years has demonstrated a majority of Rhode Islanders support extending marriage to all loving, committed couples in the Ocean State.”

Plante says his group isn’t adovacating putting civil rights on the ballot. It’s asking, instead, for a vote on what the definition of marriage is.

“The question is what is marriage?,” he said. “The definition of marriage transcends states, countries, societies and history. Further, the high ground claimed by our opponents that marriage should not be on the ballot is moot. It was our opponents who put marriage on the ballot in Maine and are pushing to marriage on the ballot in at least Ohio and Oregon.”

Ray Sullivan, executive director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), says putting such a question to voters would be divisive and hurtful.

“If you ask someone how they would feel about, for example, sitting down to dinner watching the news or listening to the radio and seeing or hearing a commercial that was essentially attacking their family, I think they would tell you that that’s not something that they would want to see,” He said.

Reflective of RI Voters?

Both sides of the same-sex marriage debate will have their eyes fixed on the Senate Judiciary Committee if, and when, that body takes up the issue.

NOM’s poll, which can be viewed here, polled 401 registered voters with “at least a nominal voting history randomly selected from the rhode island voter registration rolls,” Plante said and though 71 percent of participants surveyed were over the age of 50, the organization feels the results are a solid indication of how the state feels as a whole.

“It’s a poll of voters, not citizens or even adults,” Plante said. “The results of this survey are nearly identical to numerous other surveys since 2009, including those by Quest research. NOM Rhode Island is confident that these results reflect the people’s long standing desire to vote on the issue of marriage irrespective of their personal position on the definition of marriage.

Governor Lincoln Chafee and other prominent Rhode Island politicians have repeatedly expressed a desire to have lawmakers decide the issue in the General Assembly, rather than the polls, and Sullivan says he hopes that’s the way it plays out.

“It’s not just the Governor, it’s the Speaker and the Senate President who have said that they don’t favor moving forward with putting this on the ballot so I know there’s going to be people to continue to ask this question but we believe that legislators are elected to lead,” he said.

Plante calls Chafee “out of step with the people of Rhode Island” on the issue and hopes voters will one day have the chance to make the choice for themselves.

“We’ve voted on ports, casinos, and changing the name of the state, how much more important is marriage to the people of Rhode Island?,” he said. “Shouldn’t Rhode Islanders have the same opportunity to decide this issue as those in the other states?”

In the meantime, both sides of the debate are eagerly awaiting the debate to reach the Senate Judiciary Committee, even if not knowing when the matter might be discussed is a bit disheartening.

“There’s a process,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to respect that process and continue to play by the rules. The Senate has said there will be a hearing on this and we take them at their word and look forward to continuing having thoughtful and productive conversations with all 38 members of the senate and hopefully move forward with passing this important legislation.”


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