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Rhode Island Gears for Gay Marriage Battle in 2013

Friday, December 21, 2012

 

With the Rhode Island General Assembly set to reconvene in less than two weeks, same-sex marriage advocates say they are confident the issue will be brought to a vote during the 2013 legislative session.

Those sentiments were reaffirmed this week when Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed –considered a likely “no” vote on gay marriage legislation— said she expects the judiciary committee to vote on the matter during the session. On the House side, Speaker Gordon Fox has consistently said his chamber will vote on gay marriage by the end of January.

“We are certainly pleased and appreciative of the Senate President’s comments,” said Marriage Equality Rhode Island executive director Ray Sullivan. “We have long advocated that this bill should receive an open hearing and an up or down vote. That hasn’t happened and we appreciate the Senate President’s commitment to bring it to a vote.”

Sullivan led an election year effort to elect more same-sex marriage supporters to the Senate, which has long been considered the final road block to getting legislation passed. While that effort included a failed attempt to oust Senate judiciary chairman Michael McCaffrey from office, Sullivan said the overall campaign was a success.

“There are going to be more pro-equality supporters in the General Assembly than at any time in history,” Sullivan, a former State Representative, said. “I feel that we are well positioned strategically and institutionally within the General Assembly to finally move forward with passing civil rights legislation.”

Civil Unions are ‘Worthless’

Still, despite support from Governor Lincoln Chafee and House Speaker Gordon Fox, same-sex marriage is no sure thing for the Ocean State.

While the issue is debated in the State Senate, there will likely be legislation introduced to make changes to the state’s civil unions law, which was passed in 2011. Some lawmakers believe that getting rid of the so-called “Corvese amendment,” a stipulation that allows any religiously connected entity to ignore the legal import of a civil union, might be the best option for same-sex couples in Rhode Island.

But other leaders are far more critical of civil unions. Earlier this year, the state ACLU found that only 68 couples obtained civil union licenses in the first year of the law. By comparison, Hawaii issued 106 civil union licenses in the first month of its law.

ACLU executive director Steve Brown said the “Corvese amendment” is likely one reason so few Rhode Island pursued civil unions, but he also points to the fact that the rest of New England has already passed same-sex marriage laws.

“Our year-long review of the statistics in Rhode Island demonstrated that the civil union ‘compromise’ the legislature came up with in 2011 was worthless,” Brown said. “Legislators can no longer hide behind that law as an acceptable substitute for marriage equality. With Speaker Fox now promising an early vote on same-sex marriage legislation, I am very hopeful that both Houses will do the right thing in 2013 and join every other New England state on this issue.”

Let the Voters Decide

But some lawmakers, like State Senator Lou DiPalma, say they want the voters to decide on same-sex marriage. DiPalma said he would support a ballot question, but said he is unclear where his colleagues stand on the issue.

“As I haven’t talked with my Senate colleagues on the topic since we passed the Civil Unions legislation, I’m not certain what will result, should a bill be passed by the House and be heard in the Senate judiciary committee,” DiPalma said.

But while some have questioned whether a ballot referendum is even legal in Rhode Island, House Speaker Gordon Fox has indicated that he is completely opposed to leaving it up to the voters.

“The fundamental rights of a minority group of citizens should not be subjected to a divisive ballot initiative,” Fox said earlier this year. “Legislators are elected to lead and make decisions, and this is an issue that should be debated and ultimately decided by the people's representatives in the General Assembly. I am now, and have always been, opposed to placing civil rights issues on the ballot."

Growing the Coalition

While there are plenty of questions left to be answered regarding gay marriage, Sullivan was hesitant to speculate on the potential proposals that could be introduced during the 2013 session.

He said the focus now is on continuing to grow the base.

“This doesn’t change our focus,” he said. “We’re still committed to working with our friends and sponsors on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers and we look forward to growing that coalition of supporters.”

 

Dan McGowan can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan.

 

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