PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Hundreds of supporters of same-sex marriage rights assembled at the Rhode Island Statehouse Tuesday to urge 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 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 voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington approved gay marriage last fall.
Hundreds of supporters and opponents signed up to address a legislative committee reviewing the bill. Opponents held a large rally in the center of the Statehouse, and their shouting sometimes drowned out those testifying in the third-floor committee room.
Marcia Blair of North Kingstown said she is “humiliated” at having to urge lawmakers to grant her and her partner of nearly 30 years the same benefits given to heterosexual couples. She said she and her partner have had to go to extra trouble and expense to draft legal agreements granting rights that are automatic under marriage.
“We’ve been denied hundreds of benefits,” she said. Opponents, she added “have not been denied any of the rights and privileges they are determined to deny me and my partner.”
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.”
Many 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 moral grounds — and more practical ones. The Rev. Bernard Healey told lawmakers that the Providence Diocese is concerned Catholic schools and organizations could be forced to change benefit, insurance and other employment 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 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.
Supporters in Rhode Island expect the measure will pass the House 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. 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. But supporters say they’re confident 2013 is the year the state takes the next step.