Smallest State is Big Battleground on Gay Marriage
Supporters of same-sex marriage rights plan to assemble at the Rhode Island Statehouse to urge lawmakers to make the smallest state the 10th to allow gay and lesbian couples to wed - and the last to do so in New England.
House Speaker Gordon Fox has called a vote on gay marriage legislation in his chamber by month's end, making Rhode Island the latest state to address an issue whose supporters see things swinging their way after last November's election.
The House Judiciary Committee is set to hear testimony from supporters and opponents on Tuesday. If earlier hearings are any indication, it's likely to be a long, contentious day filled with protest signs, tears and sometimes bitter arguments over one of our culture's most basic institutions.
Sylvia DeLuca, of North Kingstown, tears up when she talks about how her daughter Louisa had to travel to Massachusetts to get married when her two brothers were allowed to do so wherever they wanted.
"They're being regarded as inferior human beings," said DeLuca, 71, who plans to travel to the Statehouse for Tuesday's public hearing with her husband of 52 years, Anthony DeLuca. "She is as perfect a human being as her brothers are."
Christopher Plante, director of the state chapter of the National Organization for Marriage, said he believes most Rhode Islanders remain opposed to gay marriage. But he acknowledged that the debate has taken on "a higher pitch" this year.
He said he expects as many as 500 opponents will show up at the hearing.
"I don't think we're fighting a losing battle," he said after Gov. Lincoln Chafee and top labor unions announced a new coalition in favor of gay marriage. "What you see is the elites and people who are using their positions for their personal opinions, but they don't represent the voices of Rhode Islanders."
Supporters hope the measure will pass the House, led by Fox, an openly gay Democrat, but concede the state Senate is more challenging. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed is a gay marriage opponent but has said she will allow a committee vote on the legislation should it pass the House.
Supporters are hoping to build on national momentum after voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington passed gay marriage ballot questions last fall. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, voters rejected a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have prohibited gay marriage, the first time such a ballot question has failed in the United States.
Lawmakers in Illinois are also expected to consider gay marriage this year.
Rhode Island is the only state in New England without gay marriage. Depending on whom you ask, that's either an embarrassing distinction or a welcome defense against the spread of gay marriage.
Chafee, an independent, likes to conjure the memory of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams when discussing gay marriage. Williams founded Rhode Island as a beacon of religious tolerance and was known for his friendship with native Americans.
Chafee said all couples - straight or otherwise - should be afforded the same rights to wed and urged lawmakers to "call the roll" and vote this year to join the rest of New England.
"It is time to honor and affirm that legacy," Chafee said Monday. "Call the roll for Roger Williams. Call the roll for history and I'll be happy to sign it."
State lawmakers have passed civil unions for gay couples, and Chafee signed an executive order recognizing gay marriages performed in other states. But supporters say they're confident 2013 is the year the state takes the next step.
Religious leaders have lined up on both sides. Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Providence diocese remains a vocal opponent, last week calling gay marriage "immoral and unnecessary." He's urged lawmakers to instead put gay marriage on the ballot as a referendum.
Leaders of other religious groups, however, have taken up the gay marriage banner.
"Christ welcomed all to his table," said the Rev. Gene Dyszlewski, chairman of the Rhode Island Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality. "We hope to follow his example."