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Process and Prospects for Same-Sex Marriage in Rhode Island

Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) signs along the park fence at the 2012 Providence Pride Festival. Photo by Flickr user rauchdickson.

It may seem like Rhode Island, the only state in New England that doesn’t yet allow same-sex marriage, is on its way to legalizing the practice. On Jan. 24, the state’s House of Representatives overwhelming passed legislation 51 to 19.

Gordon Fox, the Democratic Speaker of the House, is openly gay. Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican who won his post as an independent, is supportive of gay rights. And Democrats control the State Senate by a margin of 32 to 5. Those dominoes are in place, and all that appeared to be necessary was for the momentum of the gay rights movement to give the issue a light nudge.

But this bill’s passage is far from secured. Unlike in New York, where Democrats worked for months to peel off a handful of conservatives in the Republican-controlled Senate, proponents must convince Rhode Island’s Senate Democrats to move forward with the bill.

Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed, Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Michael McCaffrey are all Democrats. And all oppose gay marriage.

Paiva-Weed appeared on the local news program “10 News Conference” after the House passed the gay marriage bill, where she promised a “full and fair debate” in the Senate. This in and of itself is a step forward for gay marriage supporters, who have been stymied in the recent past by the Senate’s refusal to even consider legalization.

“This has been a long journey,” Fox said in a statement following the bill’s passage. He voted for same-sex marriage in 1997 and shelved similar legislation two years ago when it became clear that bill wouldn’t make it through the Senate.

Another factor complicating Rhode Island’s gay marriage campaign is the looming prospect of a Supreme Court decision. The ruling will involve California’s Prop 8, which might apply only narrowly to the Golden State but could also end with a broader change that would affect state marriage laws. Marcia Coyle, chief Washington correspondent for the National Law Journal, summed up the issue on the NewsHour last month:

“If the court said that the 14th Amendment does prohibit California from defining marriage as between a man and a woman, then other state laws would certainly be at risk, other than just California.”

For Rhode Island senators, why cast a potentially politically troublesome vote now when the Supreme Court might simplify the issue for you in the summer? Fox, aware of the bill’s precarious position, has called on the Senate to tackle the legislation swiftly: “This is one of those issues you don’t punt.”

Chafee’s statement following the House passage stressed the economic consequences of the bill. “I urge Senate leadership to ‘call the roll’ — for our economy, for our gay and lesbian friends and neighbors, and for history,” he said.

Supporters of the legislation are emphasizing claims that being the only state in the region without legal gay marriage makes their businesses less competitive, appealing to Democratic senators who claim the government should be more focused on Rhode Island’s unemployment being over 10 percent than social issues.

Much of the Democratic opposition comes from devout Catholics like Paiva-Weed and McCaffrey. Catholics have exerted an especially strong political influence in Rhode Island for generations. But gay marriage is an issue that is evolving for them, too.

Paiva-Weed said in an interview after the vote that many are “genuinely struggling with this issue.”

And although it could be months before the Senate even addresses the bill, Paiva-Weed said, “The debate and the discussion in the Senate will be very real, and neither I nor anybody else … really knows what the final outcome of that will be.”

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