Gay Marriage Supporters in RI push for vote

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By: Joe Siegel/TRT Reporter
April 13, 2011
PROVIDENCE, RI–Advocates for same-sex marriage in Rhode Island remain hopeful that a vote will occur later in the current legislative session, which concludes in June.

Ray Sullivan, Campaign Director for MERI (Marriage Equality Rhode Island) told bloggers during a conference call last week that support for allowing gays and lesbians to wed continues to grow.

“It’s really starting to build,” Sullivan said.

Hearings on a marriage bill were held by the House Judiciary Committee in February. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the marriage bill last month.

A same-sex marriage bill has been introduced by members of the General Assembly every year since 1997. However, the bills have never made it out of their respective committees for a vote. This year may be different.

Sullivan noted that the state’s top leaders, including Governor Lincoln Chafee (I) and House Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence, who is openly gay) support same-sex marriage.

A number of organizations have endorsed marriage rights for same-sex couples in the past few weeks, including the state chapter of the AFL-CIO, the Rhode Island Bar Association, as well as numerous city and town committee chairmen.

MERI has 5,000 activists and supporters manning phone banks and lobbying legislators. In addition, the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Marry have also loaned their resources.

The Roman Catholic Church, led by Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Providence Archdiocese, has been outspoken in their opposition to same-sex marriage. The church has a full-time lobbyist, Father Bernard Healey, at the State House.

Sullivan acknowledged the church remains a formidable opponent, but notes the marriage equality supporters are strong in their own right.

“We’re better (at) organizing than they are,” Sullivan said. “(The Catholic Church is) running a different playbook than we are.”
The Roman Catholic Church does not speak for all Catholics either, Sullivan explained.

Three national polls revealed the majority of Catholics support marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples. A group known as Catholics for Equality has been working to gain support for same-sex marriage. They have held meetings at MERI’s offices and had the first Catholic Lobby Day at the State House – an event Sullivan called “successful.”

Bombarding individual legislators with phone calls also has an effect, according to Sullivan. One legislator received 67 messages regarding marriage equality.

The state chapter of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) has run television and radio commercials, and distributed mailers to targeted legislative districts in an attempt to have same-sex marriage be decided by the voters.

Sullivan believes a ballot initiative is highly unlikely to occur this year due to a lack of support. However, he expects a legislator will propose legislation to place same-sex marriage on a ballot in the future.
A hearing on a Reciprocal Benefits bill was held last Tuesday, leading many to believe that perhaps a civil unions bill would be voted on instead of the marriage equality bill.

Not true, said Sullivan, who noted that MERI is doing everything in their power to get same-sex marriage passed in Rhode Island this year.

“We are not going to compromise,” Sullivan said. “We’re doing everything we can to turn the heat up on (legislators). We’ll get the votes. We’ll get this done.”

On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Robert Watson (R-East Greenwich), called for a full House vote on the same-sex marriage bill, even offering to use his powers as the head of the chamber’s Republican caucus to do so.

Watson, who opposes same-sex marriage, explained he hoped that the House could resolve the issue before next week’s April recess so that the chamber could focus on the state budget. “It was always my [hope] that after the April break we would be focused like a laser beam on budget issues, yet we have this barking dog, in committee, constantly preoccupying us,” he said.

Watson offered to invoke a House rule that allows for a bill to be removed from a committee without a recommendation in order to allow for a vote on the House floor.
He was promptly cut off by Fox, who ruled him out of order.

Fox said: “It’s just good to see the Leader [being] such a strong support of gay marriage. We noted your support of gay marriage, Leader Watson.”

Watson replied: “I will not allow you Mr. Speaker to mischaracterize my position. You know exactly where I stand.”