By: Joe Siegel/TRT Reporter
The fight to pass a same-sex marriage bill in the Ocean State reached a critical point Tuesday, when more than two hundred people gathered in the rotunda of the Rhode Island State House for a rally organized by Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI).
The House Judiciary Committee listened to testimony regarding 2 bills – one which would legalize same-sex nuptials, and another which would let the voters decide whether or not to amend the State Constitution to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
This year, same-sex marriage advocates have a major political figure on their side: Governor Lincoln Chafee (I), who has urged legislators to pass a bill allowing same-gender couples to wed.
The rally became boisterous at times, with opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage clashing loudly.
Reverend Gene Dyszlewski, leader of the Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality – a group of 130 clergy from around the state, spoke in support of same-sex marriage, calling it “God’s will.”
“The wind of change is blowing and it’s blowing in our direction,” Dyslewski said. “We need to pass marriage equality now because it hurts no one.”
“I stand here as the proud mother of a gay son and the proud aunt of a gay nephew,” said State Senator Rhoda Perry (D-Providence), a co-sponsor of same-sex marriage legislation in the Senate. “Civil marriage has to be open to same-sex couples,” explained Perry, noting it provided emotional and financial security and stability.
Other speakers at the rally included Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts (D), State Representatives John Edwards (D-Portsmouth), Frank Ferri (D-Warwick), and Art Handy (D-Cranston), lead sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill in the House.
The House Judiciary Committee hearing lasted well into the night and featured impassioned testimony from supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage.
“Rhode Island is surrounded by marriage equality and has become the island of inequality,” said MERI’s Executive Director Kathy Kushnir. “Our loving, committed couples should not have to cross borders to receive the full respect, recognition and rights that only marriage can provide. They deserve nothing less than equal access to marriage here at home.”
Kushnir cited a 2010 poll, commissioned by MERI, which showed that 59 percent of Rhode Islanders support the right of gay and lesbian couples to wed.
Another same-sex marriage supporter was Annie Cronin, of West Warwick, who married her wife Melanie Silva in Massachusetts in 2008.
“We are a typical couple – we own our own home, we pay taxes, we work in the community, we have pets, we have an amazing circle of friends and family,” Cronin said. “A typical couple, and yet we are not given the same recognition for our relationship as other couples. We are not given the same protections under the law that other married couples automatically receive: hospital visitation, social security benefits, tax benefits, estate taxes, nursing home rights/protections, just to name a few.”
Kyle Marnane, a student at Johnson and Wales University, also spoke in favor of the marriage equality bill: “I find myself two years into a committed relationship – ready to marry the person I love. I hope my story helps the General Assembly understand that same-sex couples are people too – people who just want to be able to marry the person we love and not have the government treat us differently because of that love.”
Opponents of marriage equality remained determined to stop the Ocean State from joining its neighboring states in allowing gay and lesbian couples to get married.
The National Organization of Marriage (NOM) has flooded the radio and television airwaves with commercials in the past month in an attempt to persuade Chafee and state legislators to allow voters to decide whether or not same-sex couples should be allowed to get married.
Maggie Gallagher, the chairwoman of NOM, told the House Judiciary Committee about the potential impact that same-sex marriage would have on the state: “It is not just about what two couples do in private. It’s what the government of Rhode Island is going to teach in public. It is changing the definition of marriage for every person in Rhode Island.”
Gallagher believes the voters should decide the issue.
In 2010, NOM conducted a poll which indicated that 80 percent of the state’s voters wanted same-sex marriage rights put on a ballot.
“I’m speaking for hundreds of thousands of people in this state, as well as millions of other Americans when I say we do not believe that our marriage laws are discriminatory,” Gallagher continued. “We think that marriage is the union of husband and wife for a reason. Marriage deserves its unique status in law, in culture, and in society because these unions really are unique. They are the only ones that can make new life and connect those children in love to their mother and father.”