Gay marriage: A big debate in the smallest state

Gay marriage could be legalized in Rhode Island before the end of January. Hundreds of supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage testified before the state legislature today.

David Klepper
Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) addresses same-sex marriage supporters in Providence, R.I., on Monday, Jan. 14. Chafee and others announced a coalition to encourage state lawmakers to pass same-sex marriage laws this session.

Hundreds of supporters of same-sex marriage rights assembled at the Rhode Island Statehouse on Tuesday, urging lawmakers to make the nation's 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, who is gay, has called for a vote on same-sex 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 voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington approved gay marriage last fall.

About 300 supporters and opponents signed up to address the legislative committee reviewing the bill — they were limited to 2 minutes each to keep the hearing from going all night — while hundreds more gathered in the hallways outside the hearing.

Downstairs, a raucous rally of gay-marriage opponents beneath the Statehouse rotunda at times drowned out those testifying in the third-floor committee room.

"I'd like us to get on the right side of history," said Josephine O'Connell, 71, of Providence, who said it "breaks her heart" that her home state is the only one in New England that doesn't allow gays and lesbians like her to marry. "I don't want to be looking back in 20 years, thinking 'what were we thinking?'"

Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, and Treasurer Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, both spoke out in favor of gay marriage at the hearing.

"I'm here as your treasurer, but I'm really here as a mother and wife," said Raimondo. "Every Rhode Islander deserves the same rights that we have."

Hundreds of others showed up to urge lawmakers in this heavily Catholic state to drop the legislation and protect the current definition of marriage.

The Roman Catholic Church opposes the legislation on religious grounds — and more practical ones. The Rev. Bernard Healey told lawmakers that the Providence Diocese is concerned Catholic schools and charitable organizations could be forced to change their employee benefit policies if compelled to recognize the same-sex spouses of employees.

"We are here to defend and support the longstanding definition of marriage... as the exclusive and lasting relationship of a man and a woman," Healey said. "Using the law to alter or redefine marriage is an injustice to those who have embraced this way of life."

Others warned that allowing gay marriage would erode social norms.

"Just because these states in New England have decided to redefine marriage doesn't mean we should follow them down this path," said Michael Krzywonos of Pawtucket. "The polygamists will be next in line. Then we'll begin to test the boundaries of what age is permissible. And then we will test whether love and marriage can only be between two people."

Supporters are hoping to build on national momentum following the votes in Maine, Maryland and Washington. 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.

Supporters in Rhode Island expect the measure will pass the Democrat-controlled House but concede the state Senate is more challenging. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, a Newport Democrat, is a gay marriage opponent but has said she will allow a committee vote on the legislation should it pass the House. She said Tuesday that she would not vote for the legislation as it's currently written.

State lawmakers have passed civil unions for gay couples, and Chafee signed an executive order recognizing gay marriages performed in other states.

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