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slides: The 10 People Who Will Decide the Fate of Same Sex Marriage in Rhode Island

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


The battle over same-sex marriage in Rhode Island officially kicks off this afternoon as the House Judiciary Committee will take up a bill introduced by Rep. Arthur Handy of Cranston that would allow same-gender couples to marry in the state and would change the definition of previously-recognized civil unions to marriages.

At the same time, a newly-formed group of a number of prominent religious leaders called the “Faith Alliance to Preserve the Sanctity of Marriage as Established by God” is expected to meet at the State House to express their opposition to the legislation.

Political experts across the state all agree the bill should have no trouble getting through the House but that’s where the real battle begins.

And while it seems the odds of the legislation being passed are greater than ever before in Rhode Island, the fate of same sex marriage in the Ocean State will ultimately come down to 10 people who have either taken a hard stance on the issue or remain as key question marks heading into the debate.

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Gordon Fox

Speaker of the House

Perhaps the most outspoken proponent of gay marriage on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Gordon Fox, the first openly gay House speaker in the United States, took heat in 2011 when he made a push for civil unions in Rhode Island.

The problem wasn’t the civil unions themselves, it was that Fox had initially pledged to pass gay marriage as a whole in the state and the bill that was ultimately negotiated was more of a compromise than his supporters had hoped for.

In the two years since that bill was signed into law by Governor Chafee, the speaker has not shied away from the topic and has gone on the record multiple times to say he intended to bring the discussion back to the State House. Fox even went as far as saying that the issue was one of the main reasons he ran for re-election.

"Two years ago, Speaker Fox made it clear there were not enough votes on the House floor to pass same-sex marriage,” House Communications Director Larry Berman said. “He forged a compromise to enable same-sex couples who wished to enter into a civil union to have the same rights and privileges as married couples.  With a new House membership in place, Speaker Fox is now confident that the votes are secured to gain House passage."

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M. Teresa Paiva Weed

President of the Senate

Long considered one of the main obstacles to the passage of gay marriage in Rhode Island, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed made news last month when she pledged to allow a judiciary committee vote on the topic if a bill passed in the House.

Paiva Weed, who in the past has opposed same-sex marriage, appointed that Senate Judiciary Committee last week and anyone looking to get an idea of how it will rule based on its members was left disappointed as the committee had a strong balance between individuals who have come out for and against the topic in the past.

Some believe the move was a strategic one for Paiva Weed, who may stand to have the upper hand in negotiations with Fox because the House Speaker has taken such a strong stance on the issue and would suffer the most politically from the bill's defeat.

Either way, it's clear that the bill will be decided in the Senate and whether gay marriage is passed outright as law or put up as a referendum for voters to decide, a move both Fox and Governor Chafee have strongly opposed, it's clear Paiva Weed will be at the front and center of the debate.

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Ray Sullivan

Executive Director of Marriage Equality of Rhode Island

For six years as a State Representative from 2004-2010, Ray Sullivan co-sponsored same-sex marriage legislation and tried to get it passed in Rhode Island but, ultimately, he could do nothing to advance the issues as his colleagues refused to broach the potentially politically-damaging topic.

It wasn’t until 2011 that the subject really arrived at the forefront of RI politics and, by then, Sullivan had taken a position as executive direction of Marriage Equality Rhode Island.

Not surprisingly, Sullivan was strongly against the compromise reached by Fox and in the time since the bill was passed, has worked hard to bring the debate back to the top of people’s minds on Capitol Hill. 

Sullivan and his group of supporters ran a targeted campaign this past November with unions and other progressive groups to target Senators they felt were against gay marriage and said the results of his efforts led to more pro-equality members of the legislature in 2013 than at any time ever before.

Those results give Sullivan political leverage and could sway some politicians on the fence on the issue in what is already likely to be a close vote in the Senate.

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Rev. Thomas J. Tobin

Bishop of the Diocese of Providence

In recent years, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin has emerged as one of the leading voices in Rhode Island against same sex marriage.

In an interview in 2011, prior to the passage of civil unions in the state, Tobin hinted that he was opposed to the unions because of where he felt it would lead.

As Tobin’s words have seemingly come true, at least in that civil unions have proven not enough to slow down those in favor of same-sex marriage, the Bishop has stepped up his opposition to the social issue, citing his strong religious beliefs that leave no room for compromise.

“We think it is an ill-advised attempt to redefine the very basic parameters of marriage as they’ve existed from the very beginning of mankind—as the union of one man and one woman designed to create new life and to encourage the love of the spouses,” Tobin stated during the civil union discussion.

Tobin has been quick to respond publically every time the subject of gay marriage comes up, even criticizing President Obama last week for endorsing same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, and with a large religious core of voters in Rhode Island in his corner and a strong voice that seems undaunted by political pressure from his opponents, Tobin’s views could prove influential if for no other reason than the fact that he has no fear in expressing them on a regular basis.

Tobin will no doubt be very active publically if, and when, a decision looms on the legislation.

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Lincoln Chafee

Governor of Rhode Island

One of the biggest fears of many pro-gay marriage proponents, and one of the biggest hopes for those against it, is the very possible scenario that the General Assembly ultimately decides to avoid ruling on the topic of same sex marriage altogether and, instead, turns the decision over to voters in a state referendum.

At least one bill calling for such a vote is expected to be introduced this session by Providence’s Sen. Frank Ciccone but it may not matter if Governor Chafee follows through with his promise last week to veto any bill that takes the decision out of the hands of state lawmakers.

Chafee, a same-sex marriage supporter, said last week that lawmakers should be allowed to decide the issue and are elected to do just that and a veto by him on any bill to avoid a vote at the General Assembly level would be a big setback to those who support sending the measure to the polls and would most likely force a decision at the state level.

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Michael McCaffrey

Senator, District 29 (Warwick)

Second perhaps only to Paiva Weed, Democrat Michael McCaffrey will play one of the biggest roles in whether or not a gay marriage bill passes the Senate, long considered ground zero for the debate.

McCaffrey is opposed to gay marriage and his win in a September primary over challenger Laura Pisaturo, who was supported by the pro gay marriage group Fight Back RI, was viewed as a key setback for the bill’s chances in that chamber.

McCaffrey is a chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and passage by that particular group is the first obstacle any gay marriage bill would face. If McCaffrey can get enough support on the committee, the topic of gay marriage could be spiked before it ever even reaches the full Senate.

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Donna Nesselbush

Senator, District 15 (Pawtucket, North Providence)

Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush, an openly gay senator currently serving her second-term, has taken up the fight for same sex marriage in the Senate and introduced the bill to that chamber last week.

Nesselbush says the issue is one that is “intensely personal” for her as well as thousands of other Rhode Islanders.

“After many years, I have finally found the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with, the woman I want to marry,” she said in a statement last week. “We are both spiritual and want to deepen and strengthen our devotion. We are deeply in love, and are hoping and praying for marriage equality so we can tie the knot. But this is not about me or us. This is about the thousands of loving gay and lesbian couples who want and deserve the right to marry,”

Nesselbush could sway undecided members in the Senate to vote in favor of the legislation, which she feels is supported by “most Rhode Islanders.”

“I implore my colleagues to join me in casting a vote on the right side of history,” she said. “The train has left the station. Marriage equality is inevitable. Young people cannot even understand why this is an issue. A crescendo is building, and most Rhode Islanders want us to enact marriage equality.”

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Christopher Plante

Regional Cordinator for the National Organization for Marriage

As the regional head of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM)-Rhode Island, Christopher Plante is at the forefront of one of the most vocal groups against gay marriage in the state.

Plante and his organization have already begun gathering support to block the bill currently before the House, saying it “threatens to fundamentally redefine marriage, the most basic building block of civil society in Rhode Island.”

In a statement to supporters, Plante said “people of faith” would suffer from a move to legalize gay marriage in the state.

“Rhode Island politicians backing same-sex marriage claim that they will protect religious liberty even while fundamentally redefining our most important social institution,” he said. “But experience elsewhere has shown that this just isn’t true — there will be consequences, and people of faith will pay the price first.”

How much sway Plante and NOM ultimately have remains to be seen but there’s no doubt the group will be very vocal in the lead-up to any vote and put as much pressure on key lawmakers as possible to stop the change, beginning with today’s rally at the State House.

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William Conley

Senator, District 18 (East Providence, Pawtucket)

One of the biggest question marks in the entire gay marriage debate in Rhode Island, William Conley, a first-time senator from East Providence, has yet to come out publically in favor of or against the social issue and, already, some are calling him a potential swing vote on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

With that body playing the biggest role in how far the bill gets with the General Assembly, how Conley votes may ultimately decide the bill’s fate in that chamber and, if nothing else, his refusal to take a position leaves its fate unclear heading into the hearings.

It was reported last week that a former colleague of Conley’s on the East Providence Town Council believes he will vote ‘no’ on the issue given his opinion on the matter two years ago but gay marriage advocates, perhaps hoping to sway him to their side, have said they don’t believe he has made his mind up and won’t vote one way or the other until he’s read the actual bill being presented.

Of course, Conley could do like many General Assembly members and make their decision based on how they feel their district would vote and, if he does, it would be hard to ignore data that suggests East Providence is a heavily-religious community where 82 percent of the population identifies as belonging to the Catholic Church. 

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Paul Jabour

Senator, District 5 (Providence)

Factoring Conley as a potential swing vote, the Judiciary Committee currently appears to have five supporters of same-sex marriage and four opponents. That number may change if Providence senator Paul Jabour changes from his expected pro-gay marriage stance.

During last year’s election, Jabour said he personally opposes gay marriage but would keep his personal politics out of the decision, choosing instead to base his vote on how his community feels.

“Do I support gay marriage? The answer is no,” Jabour said in a candidate forum back in September “I support civil unions. I’m not going to lie to my community but if that bill gets to the Senate floor and my constituency tells me that they want me to vote for it and it’s overwhelming, then I’m obligated to do what my constituency wants because that’s what I was elected for.”

Regardless of how he votes, Jabour is clearly one of the key people to watch as the battle over gay marriage in Rhode Island takes shape and one of the 10 who will ultimately decide its fate.


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Can someone explain the difference between
Gay marraoge and what's on the books now?

Comment #1 by jon paycheck on 2013 01 15

RI the state with content and satisfied people, fully employed and successful in business with kids that are over reaching in their education. Yes, RI is definitely the state to be in, it couldn't get any better. (the preceding statement is from your GA and your Governor).
Maybe there is a disconnect in priorities?

Comment #2 by Gary Arnold on 2013 01 15

Certainly these folks have had their say about gay marriage, but at the end of the day, it will be 10 Senators expecting reciprocal treatment on THEIR own bills, that REALLY decide this.

Comment #3 by David Beagle on 2013 01 15

Someone who is gay has every right to marriage. These people work, pay taxes and don't pump out welfare children. Either way there should be a separation of church and state. Tobin needs a reality check and the citizens of Rhode Island should also have a say it this. My opinion is clear and I am for equality; however, I don't like politicians playing games. Chaffee is backing Fox who is pushing his own agenda. David Beagle.... you couldn't be more correct.

Comment #4 by Chris Sands on 2013 01 15

Catholics in the diocese of Providence face a double challenge now that a bill favoring so-called same-sex marriage has been introduced at the state legislature. First of all, as citizens of the state of Rhode Island and as members of the secular world, Catholics should realize that marriage is primarily a natural institution. Marriage in Western Civilization and in virtually every society in the world has been the indissoluble union of one man and one woman open to the pro-creation and education of children. This was true long before Abraham or Moses or Jesus Christ came along. Naturally understood, marriage is family: the oneness of a dad and a mom raising kids.
Today, the failure of the Body of Christ to speak with one voice on this natural human issue is truly a scandal: Catholics, Orthodox and Evangelical Protestants on one side and many mainline Protestants on the other side. Some religious leaders would argue of course that the Catholic Church and specifically Bishop Tobin in Rhode Island are callously placing principles ahead of persons. Marriage is strictly an affair of the heart, some contend. Biology, they maintain, has nothing to do with marriage in the twenty-first century. Marriage transcends gender, they insist. Some religious leaders are pleased to join gay activists, Hollywood celebrities, and late night talk-show hosts in proposing their cause. Bishop Tobin and the Catholic Church, on the other hand, stand on the heritage of two thousand years of martyrs, monks, missionaries, moralists and married couples who have understood and appreciated marriage as the unique, life-giving union of one man and one woman which it is. Some religious leaders and some legislators would sadly abolish this broad-based legacy in a single generation.
All Rhode Island citizens would like to see happily married couples enjoying one another’s lifelong company. Yet all persons of faith must keep in mind that marriage is by its very nature is also oriented toward the continuation of the human species. Clearly, much more often than not, marriage down through the centuries has meant children. The married couple, whether they know it or not, are nature’s instruments for extending human kind. By natural law, the married couple must cooperate in what civilization has instinctively determined to be a great good: the enrichment of the human race. While infertility has sometimes frustrated nature’s design, fertility has much more often been the delight and the duty of the married couple. The clear good of society demands children. Adoptions and sperm donations notwithstanding, same-sex marriage would clearly thwart this integral aspect of married life.
Roman Catholics have an added obligation to resist the movement toward same-sex marriage, as this Sunday’s Gospel on the wedding feast at Cana suggests. There are many noble relationships within the human community. One thinks easily of parent and child, of brother and sister, of life-long friendships. But when the Scriptures, and especially St. Paul, want to express the intimate union between God and his people and between Christ and his Church, it is not the parental or the fraternal or the friendship bond that the Bible employs. Rather it is the spousal relationship of husband and wife that the Word of God utilizes to convey the intimacy, the permanence, and the fruitfulness of God’s love for his people. St. Paul cites marriage as a great and deep mystery, not to be replaced with a cultural fad but to be pondered and experienced as a revelation about the nature of God and his love.
All people of faith must refuse to tamper with this most fundamental and at the same time most sublime spousal relationship called marriage. Rather than subvert the plan of God revealed through marriage, Catholics especially should re-assess this sacramental bond and view marriage once again as a “union which is most sacred and most serious,” as the old wedding homily so aptly labeled it. Both nature and grace demand that the Catholics of Rhode Island speak out in defense of marriage: the enduring bond of one man and one woman open to new life.

Comment #5 by Fr. John A. Kiley on 2013 01 15

10 people shouldn't decide the fate of gay marriage. It should all the people of Rhoe Island, every Rhode Island should be able to speak up and have a say about their state.

Comment #6 by Mark St. Pierre on 2013 01 15

As a Christian, i have reassed my stance on same Sex Marrage (sp)

i belive my Faith should not interfer with a man or womans

Constiuional Rights we are a Secular country.

Iteresting artical on the Front page of Sunday journal Jan 30th.

Chaffee, Fox and Piva Weed discussing the upcoming year.

Speaker Fox Stated that passage of same sex law would attract

better Educated and more enlightend people to RI.

Ignorant insults like this sould go a long way to changing

peoples Views! Translation "Respect my Sexualty while i sh!t on your Religion"

Comment #7 by chuck murphy on 2013 01 15

Regardless of your personal position on this subject, most reasonable people would agree that this is a dramatic change to what has been the accepted societal norm. If it was controversial enough for 35 or 36 states to allow the public at large to vote, then why not in RI? Comparisons to the civil rights movement of the 60's just do not hold up to close scrutiny. The pro gay marriage lobby continually state that a majority of RI's are in favor of it. Then let us decide. Then maybe we can move past this unending debate and let the GA focus on some issues that affect all RI's like taxes, jobs, etc.

Comment #8 by Harold Stassen on 2013 01 15

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.