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Best of Providence 2009

Equal rites?

Why has Rhode Island lagged behind the rest of New England on same-sex marriage legislation?
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  April 8, 2009

DETERMINED Cassandra Ormiston is part of a grassroots movement that is unwilling to settle for civil unions. 

New England has made a pretty good case, in recent years, for America's capital of queer. 

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court became the first in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage in 2003. The Connecticut high court, channeling its inner Harvey Milk, followed suit last year.

And just this week, Vermont became the first state in the nation to approve gay marriage outside a courthouse when the state legislature overrode Republican Gov. Jim Douglas's veto of a same-sex nuptials bill.

In New Hampshire, which recognizes civil unions, and Maine, which has a domestic partnership law on the books, the legislatures are taking their own steps toward gay marriage.

But the love-in, as activists are quick to point out, has not spread across the entire region. There is a lone exception. A stubborn holdout.

"Rhode Island," said Kathy J. Kushnir, executive director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, "has turned into an island of inequality." Rhody is, indeed, the only New England state that fails to recognize same-sex unions in some fashion or another. And insiders say gay marriage legislation, which has rattled around the State House since 1997, will probably die again this session.

It is, on some level, hard to figure. Polling suggests solid public support for same-sex marriage. Democrats have long dominated the General Assembly. And the sky, at press time, had not yet fallen in the neighboring states.

So what, exactly, is wrong with Rhode Island?

The simple answer is Donald L. Carcieri. The Republican governor has been a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage since he took office and advocates have been reluctant to press ahead with a certain veto looming.

But with the governor's second term coming to a close, the leading contenders to replace him — former US Senator Lincoln Chafee, an independent, and Treasurer Frank Caprio, Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch, and Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts, all Democrats — are voicing moderate to full-throated support for the cause.

And there is a confidence in the same-sex marriage camp that was unimaginable just a few years ago. Victory, many say, is near — maybe just a year and a few months away.

They may be right. But the gay marriage fight is more complicated than a gubernatorial election. And the outcome is far from certain.

State Representative Joseph A. Trillo, the leading Republican gubernatorial hopeful, is a long shot for chief executive but could pose an obstacle to same-sex marriage should he prevail. And Speaker of the House William J. Murphy and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed have both announced that they oppose gay marriage.

Gay rights advocates, themselves, are debating whether to put off the same-sex marriage fight in favor of a less ambitious push for civil unions. Legal experts say the Rhode Island courts may be less-than-hospitable to a same-sex marriage petition, should the legislative strategy fizzle.

And there is another, less tangible factor at work.

"Rhode Island," said Rev. Bernard A. Healey, the chief lobbyist for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, "is a long way from Vermont."

And he's not just talking geography.

A recent study, the third in a series known as the American Religious Identification Survey, found a steep drop in the proportion of Ocean Staters identifying as Catholic — down from 62 percent in 1990 to 46 percent last year.

But Rhode Island remains the most Catholic state in the nation. And legislators say the church, however diminished, still has clout in a General Assembly with a strong Irish and Italian cast.

The church connects with lawmakers in all sorts of ways: Sunday sermons, with legislators in the pews; impromptu lobbying by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin after ceremonial visits to the legislature; direct entreaties from Healey.

And there is another, more subtle form of influence, lawmakers say — a set of ingrained expectations for men and women who grew up attending Mass on Sunday and packing off to Catholic school the next morning.

"It's social, it's casual," said state Senator Rhoda E. Perry, a Providence Democrat who backs same-sex marriage. "It's in the fabric of social interaction, when you are a legislator who is a member of a church, who is a graduate of Hendricken, a graduate of La Salle, a graduate of [Providence College]."

Of course, that fabric has frayed in the face of the priest sex abuse scandal and the state's gradual secularization. And Healey, who has been lobbying the legislature on abortion and poverty and immigration issues for a decade now, acknowledges that younger members of the Assembly do not feel the same allegiance to the church as their older colleagues.

"But if there is a kernel of faith," he said, "they're going to listen."

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  Topics: News Features , Arthur Handy, Christopher Plante, Culture and Lifestyle,  More more >
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Re: Equal rites?
You are entitled to your opinion, but I don't think this is a religious or church issue.  The rights of everyone is at stake with this same sex marriage issue.  A doctor who would not artificially inseminate a patient even though he recommended others who would was still sued and put out of business. It was in the wall street journal back a couple months ago and happened in California.   Two parents who wanted their children pulled from second grade when homosexuality was taught were told to go pound sand basically.   A church hall could not hold a gay marriage because it was against their teaching was sued and their 501C3 status taken away.  Even though the couple had plenty of options.    I see the minority here trying to find as many opportunities to go out of their way to punish anyone that feels differently.  That is very dangerous and discriminitory.  Sounds a little like freedom is at stake here.  Not the way you portray. 
By Sam Smith on 04/09/2009 at 9:51:23

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