PROVIDENCE – In what backers are calling “a historic step forward,” Pawtucket Sen. Donna Nesselbush’s bill to legalize same-sex marriage is scheduled for a vote on Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
If the bill passes out of committee, it could come to a vote in the full Senate as soon as Thursday. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed said recently that she expects the measure to get a full Senate vote by the end of this month.
Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, the grassroots political group formed to push the legislation through the General Assembly, is not taking anything for granted, however.
“We are building toward a big weekend of action, doubling and tripling our efforts,” Campaign Director Raymond Sullivan told The Call on Friday. “We are going to put hundreds of people on the phones and going door-to-door this weekend to convey that last bit of urgency.” They will be contacting people and asking them to urge their senators to vote in favor of the bill.
“This is a generational effort,” Sullivan asserts, “this bill has been introduced in one form or another for nearly 20 years. Now that we are on the eve of a historic and certainly unprecedented Senate committee consideration, we want to make sure that we’re doing everything in our power to continue connecting legislators with their constituents who support the freedom to marry for all loving and committed couples.”
During those two decades, the same-sex marriage issue has been one of the most contentious to be handled by the legislature. Nesselbush’s bill was the subject of a 12-hour hearing in March, with people on both sides of the debate staying until nearly 5 a.m. to be heard. Religious leaders of various faiths have also been divided, some in favor and others opposed to allowing gay nuptials.
Marriage equality supporters have believed they were on the brink of victory before. They were bitterly disappointed in 2011 when -- despite having the backing of the first openly gay Speaker of the House of Representatives, Gordon Fox, and new Gov. Lincoln Chafee who championed same-sex marriage, unlike his predecessor, Gov. Donald Carcieri, who consistently threatened a veto of any gay marriage bill that reached his desk – a marriage bill failed to win sufficient support and was pulled in favor of a compromise allowing civil unions, which Chafee signed into law.
Since that time, Paiva Weed has been seen by proponents as the principal impediment to same-sex marriage legislation. Last week Sullivan said he gives the Senate president “credit where credit is due. She has kept her word. She has provided a forum for fair discussion with the promise there would be an up-or-down vote on marriage equality and, true to her word, she is delivering on that commitment.”
Also on the agenda for Tuesday’s committee hearing is a bill by Providence Sen. Frank Ciccone calling for a constitutional amendment allowing same-sex unions that would be subject to a referendum vote in the 2014 elections. That measure has lost traction however, as several Senate co-signers have since backed away from the idea, saying the no longer support the vote.
Another hint that Nesselbush’s bill might be headed for passage is that the committee is also considering the same-sex marriage bill that passed in the House in January, and is nearly identical to the Senate version.
Nesselbush’s bill contains provisions that no official of any church of any religious denomination would be required to officiate at or otherwise facilitate a same-sex marriage. It does not, however, contain language that is in the current civil unions law saying that no religious organization or anyone employed by such an organization is not required to treat civil unions as valid or to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges for any civil union. That part of the law is known as the “Corvese amendment,” named for its sponsor, North Providence Rep. Arthur Corvese.
Asked if marriage equality proponents would accept such language in a marriage law if that is what would be necessary to ensure passage, Sullivan answered with an emphatic “No.”
The Corvese amendment, Sullivan said, “is a non-starter. It is discriminatory, excessively broad, and, quite frankly, unnecessary. My belief is that a bill that contains such caustic and discriminatory language would not get through the House of Representatives. It wouldn’t pass.
“We want what is fair and just for everyone and a bill that allows small businesses or individuals or organizations to pro-actively discriminate against gay and lesbian Rhode Islanders exclusively based on their sexual orientation is a significant and dramatic roll-back of the state’s existing anti-discrimination laws. It is not only unacceptable, it is offensive and we don’t think there is political will in the House to get it through.”