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Will R.I. Lawmakers Finally Pass a Marriage Equality Bill?

by Joe Siegel
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Monday Feb 20, 2012
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A marriage equality bill was among the three LGBT rights measures that state lawmakers introduced on Thursday.

State Rep. Art Handy (D-Cranston) and state Sen. Rhoda Perry (D-Providence) introduced the Equal Access to Marriage Act in the House of Representatives.

A marriage equality bill was introduced last year, but gay House Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence) withdrew it after he said there were not enough votes for it to pass. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Newport) opposes marriage for same-sex couples. Both chambers are controlled by Democrats.

Fox instead backed supported a civil union bill that lawmakers passed last June. Governor Lincoln Chafee signed the measure into law in July.

Marriage Equality Rhode Island has led the fight to secure nuptials for same-sex couples in the Ocean State for the past 8 years. Members of the General Assembly have introduced a marriage equality bill every year since 1997. These measures, however, have never made it out of their respective committees for a vote.

Ray Sullivan, campaign director for MERI, told EDGE he expects the Ocean State to have marriage equality within an 18-month to 2 year timeframe.

Another bill, known as the Equal Religious Protection Act, calls for the repeal of the Corvese amendment attached to the civil union law that allows religiously-affiliated hospitals, schools and other institutions to ignore the legal standing of a civil union spouse.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union noted the law contained "broad religious exemptions that undermine the unions’ value, the availability of marriage equality in all the surrounding states, and 12 years of anticipation for full marriage equality."

The third bill is the Equal Access to Family Court Act, which would allow same-sex couples who married out of state to obtain divorces in Rhode Island courts.

"MERI aims to eliminate the legal double standards that continue to penalize same-sex couples while continuing on the road to full marriage equality," said Sullivan.

The support for the bills has been strong, with more than 30 co-sponsors for both the Religious Protection Act and the Family Court Act.

Although the Catholic Church’s opposition to marriage for same-sex couples remains a formidable stumbling block, Sullivan notes most Catholics support nuptials for gays and lesbians.

"We’re fortunate to have an active coalition of religious leaders from almost every denomination, and a Catholics for Equality group, who will play a pivotal role in helping us win passage of this important civil rights bill," said Sullivan.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire on Feb. 13 signed her state’s marriage equality bill into law. New Jersey lawmakers last week approved a similar measure, but Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it on Friday. The Maryland House of Delegates on the same day narrowly approved a bill that would allow gays and lesbians to marry in their state.

Do these marriage equality victories provide additional momentum to efforts in the Ocean State?

"With every state that passes marriage equality legislation, it becomes increasingly difficult for some Rhode Island legislators to justify the continued treatment of same-sex couples in loving, committed relationships as second-class citizens," said Sullivan. "We’ve received an excellent response from rank-and-file legislators regarding our 2012 legislative agenda, and remain grateful to have so many thoughtful and dedicated representatives and senators who are committed to advancing the rights of LGBTQ Rhode Islanders."

Others have their doubts.

"Marriage Equality Rhode Island doesn’t seem to be doing anything right now," said Tony Pelliccio, an LGBT activist and blogger from Providence. "It almost looks like they are satisfied with civil unions. It is either deliberate or they’re spinning their wheels trying to drum up support again instead of re-cultivating what they already had."

Pelliccio has no faith in the General Assembly either.

"Most legislators, for the most part, are cowards when it comes to equality," he said. "We will never and I mean never get our rights through the R.I. Legislature."

Sullivan offered a rosier assessment.

"I’m confident we’ll receive a hearing (on the marriage bill), and will keep fighting as long as it takes to get and up or down vote, which we all believe is winnable," he said.

Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.

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