PROVIDENCE – In one of the biggest turnouts in recent memory, several hundred proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage descended on the Statehouse Wednesday for a rally, a press conference, speeches and a night-long hearing of the House Judiciary Committee.
The committee convened to hear two bills, one to make same-sex marriage legal in Rhode Island and the other to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot that would define marriage exclusively as the union of one man and one woman. Both bills were held for further consideration before the hearing started.
The bulk of the people drawn to the Statehouse were in favor of same-sex marriage and were there to attend a rally sponsored by Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI). Hordes of advocates clogged every marble stairway in the centrally located Rotunda, and even when the speaking program commenced there was still a line of people, three and four abreast, running from the rear door of the Statehouse all the way to the Smith Street sidewalk
A handful of protesters opposed to same-sex marriage tried to disrupt the rally by shouting and waving signs that read “1 man + 1 woman = marriage.”
Meanwhile, the National Organization for Marriage-RI held a press conference where several speakers previewed the presentation they planned to make to the committee later in the day.
This legislative session is seen as a pivotal one in the nearly decade-long effort to get a law passed either to allow same-sex marriage or officially forbid it.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee made his support for gay marriage a key issue in his campaign last year. He replaced Gov. Donald Carcieri, who for eight years was a stalwart opponent of the concept and whose implicit veto threat kept legislation from moving forward. Likewise, Rep. Gordon Fox is serving his first full year as powerful Speaker of the House. He is a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage -- in fact, he is a co-sponsor of the bill introduced by Cranston Rep. Arthur Handy – and he replaced Speaker William Murphy, who was also an important opponent of homosexual unions.
Even with opponent Sen. Teresa Paiva Weed still in place as the President of the Senate, backers of same-sex marriage say this is the best chance they have ever had – although it could be their last chance for a while if it loses – to get a law passed in their favor.
Before the hearing it was noted that Handy’s bill had 29 co-signers, as did the proposal for a constitutional amendment introduced by Woonsocket Rep. Jon Brien. Brien told The Call “that means we are fighting over the soft 17 in the middle.”
Handy called his bill “civil marriage,” saying it allows two men or two women to marry under state law.
Noting that neighboring New England states, including Massachusetts, have recognized marriages of same-sex couples, Handy said, “one of the most important things for people to remember is that the sky has not fallen in Massachusetts.”
Saying that it was important to him and his wife to make the commitment to marry, Handy told the committee “other people want what we wanted; they want to enter into that relationship, to commit to one another for better or worse. That is why this bill is so important to me.”
Cranston Rep. Charlene Lima said “it seems to me a relatively new concept,” and questioned whether a provision for same-sex marriage could be put in a different section of the law than traditional man-woman marriage.
She likened the idea to an automobile that flies. Perhaps the rules for that type of vehicle, she said, would go into a different part of the law than rules for regular road-bound autos.
“My main concern,” Lima said, “is that people in traditional marriages, they want that sacrosanct.”
She also questioned whether other states would recognize issues such as child custody, adoption and domestic abuse protections connected with homosexual marriages in Rhode Island.
Raising issues that would also be brought up by other speakers later in the night, Lima asked about the “conscientious objection” of professionals like marriage counselors and wedding planners to working with same sex couples if it violates the tenets of their religious faith.
Noting that Providence College, a Catholic school, has housing for married students, Lima questioned whether it could be sued for discriminating against homosexual couples.”
Handy replied that “people can get sued regardless” of laws applying to gay marriage. He said Providence College could probably be sued now for not accommodating unmarried couples, “but I don’t think they would have standing, I don’t think the suit would go anywhere.”
Lima said lawsuits could also arise from adoption issues or “anything else the Catholic Church might have an objection to.”
Rep. Doreen Costa urged Handy to “take the word marriage out of the bill” and create civil unions for same-sex couples.
Handy rejected that, saying, “it’s not the same thing. It’s a separate but equal challenge. It’s not even separate but equal, it’s separate and unequal.” He did, however, raise the notion of making all marriages, heterosexual and homosexual alike, civil unions.
Woonsocket Rep. Jon Brien, who introduced the proposed constitutional amendment, said that, under Rhode Island law and court decisions, it is settled that a marriage is between a man and a woman.”
“There are 113 (lawmakers) in this building,” Brien said, “38 senators and 75 representatives. I’m sure marriage is important to all 113 of us, but we are living in a state of 1 million people. There are some issues that are greater than the 113 individuals in this building.
“This is not economic policy. This is not Deepwater wind. This is not the things that we do each and every day like pension reform. This is a particular piece of legislation that would have such an incredible impact on each and every one of us in this state. There are some issues that are larger than this body.”
Proponents of same-sex marriage painted it as an issue of civil rights and equality, allowing gays and lesbians the same rights as heterosexuals to marry and enjoy an array of state and federal rights, responsibilities and benefits that only apply to people who are legally married.
Opponents pointed to the biological connections between a man and a woman that lead to bearing children and having families. They contend the government has an interest in preserving and supporting the family unit and the bond between fathers, mothers and children.
“Families and kids are what we are talking about,” said Joseph Cavanaugh, an attorney and board member of the National Organization of Marriage-RI. Allowing same-sex marriage, he said, would “push us into the abyss.”