Rhode Island House Speaker Backs Civil Unions

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By: Joe Siegel/TRT Reporter
April 28, 2011
House Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence) stunned members of the LGBT community on Wednesday when he announced his support for a civil unions bill.

Fox, who is openly gay, had pledged to push for a vote on a marriage equality bill during the current legislation. Hearings were held on the issue by the House Judiciary Committee in February and the Senate Judiciary Committee in March.
A same-sex marriage bill has been introduced every year since 1997 but has never made it out of committee for a floor vote. Marriage equality advocates had hoped this year would be different.

In a letter to his colleagues, Fox acknowledged the uphill road a gay marriage bill would have in the General Assembly.

“Based on your input, along with the fact that it is now clear to me that there is no realistic chance for passage of the bill in the Senate, I will recommend that the House not move forward with a vote on the marriage equality bill during this legislative session,” Fox wrote. “I will instead support full passage of a civil unions’ bill that grants important and long overdue legal rights to same-sex couples in Rhode Island.”
Fox continued: “I have had conversations with Senate leadership and, unlike the marriage equality bill, I am optimistic that a civil unions’ bill can gain passage in both chambers during this legislative session. The new civil union bill is currently being drafted and will soon be ready for introduction and public inspection. I will be one of the sponsors.”

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed issued this statement:

“I have consistently stated that I support civil unions. I have spoken with Speaker Fox on this issue, and I appreciate the courage and passion which he has demonstrated throughout this debate. Based upon my conversations with members of the Senate, I believe that there is broad support in the chamber for legislation to allow civil unions in Rhode Island.”

House Minority Leader Robert Watson, R-East Greenwich, said he has been on record “consistently favoring civil unions as a solution to this issue,” and believes — as he said told Fox just before the legislative break — that there is “clearly more support” in the legislature for civil unions than there is for same-sex marriage.

“Civil unions today and debate lingers on relative to marriage,” said Watson, voicing his own belief that “all people are equal and should be treated equal.”

Governor Lincoln Chafee (I), a strong advocate of same-sex marriage, said he “had hoped that legislation enacting it would have reached my desk this year,” but he respects Fox’s position and believes “passage of civil-union legislation would be a step forward for our state and I would sign such a bill if and when it reaches my desk.”
Fox’s announcement came two days after the resignation of Marriage Equality Rhode Island Executive Director Kathy Kushnir. No reason was given for Kushnir’s departure.

MERI does not support civil unions for same-gender couples.
Ray Sullivan, the Campaign Director for MERI, e-mailed supporters and urged them to keep fighting.

“Earlier today, House Speaker Gordon Fox announced that he had reversed his position on marriage equality legislation and will instead introduce a bill to adopt civil unions-a decision that could have harmful effects on thousands of committed couples in our state.

Sullivan continued: “Let’s be clear: this backroom deal was cut and crafted with the Senate at the expense of and without input from anyone in the pro-equality community.”

Openly gay State Rep. Frank Ferri (D-Warwick), a long-time advocate for marriage equality, left the following statement on his Facebook page on Thursday: “I was disappointed and shocked when I read that The Speaker went back on his promise for a vote on equality for all. Civil Unions creates a second class citizenship that is unacceptable. Although I will probably not oppose civil unions, the fight for civil marriage is not over. The pursuit of equal rights will continue.”

Meanwhile, gay marriage opponents applauded the news. Christopher Plante, the Executive Director of the state chapter of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), released a statement: “Against long odds, and the prevailing opinion of most pundits, the people of Rhode Island stood up and protected marriage and family. Defeating the Governor’s number two priority, and the claims from same-sex marriage supporters of ‘inevitability and victory’ since January, today’s announcement is a huge success that demonstrates the power of NOM-RI’s grassroots campaign. The voters of Rhode Island have spoken and their Representatives and Senators have listened – Rhode Islanders believe marriage is the union of one man and one woman.”

Supporters of marriage rights for same-sex couples blasted Fox on the Providence Journal’s web site.

One commenter wrote: “Gordon Fox is a gay Uncle Tom. He should be ashamed of himself. History will not be kind to those who sell out the rights of their own people.”

Another writer said: “It is outrageous that the Assembly will not vote on a marriage bill. The public has a right to know where individual legislators stand on this issue. And Gordon Fox should know first-hand what a slap in the face it is to ask gay people to accept second-class citizenship.”

State Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston), the leading House sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill, said: “I’m really disappointed, but I still plan to fight for equality under the law,” and “I think it’s outrageous that we’d be talking about anything less than that for same-sex couples.”