Jamestown delegates on opposite sides of same-sex marriage legislation
State Rep. Arthur Handy has introduced the same bill in the House for 10 years. Handy’s bill would permit same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, the only state in New England that does not recognize marriage equality.
This year, for the first time, Handy’s bill has a real chance of passage. At last count, 42 of the state’s 75 representatives, including
Speaker Gordon Fox, had signed on as sponsors of the bill.
One of the House bill’s sponsors is Rep. Deb Ruggiero. Ruggiero, who has just been appointed to the House Finance Committee, is an outspoken proponent of the legislation.
“Rhode Island was built on tolerance and religious freedom,” said Ruggiero, who represents Jamestown and Middletown. “I do support marriage equality. It’s a civil rights issue. I say that denying the rights of some while protecting the rights of others threatens the freedom of everyone in this country. Everyone, regardless of who we love, should live free from discrimination.”
Ruggiero, who is one of four openly gay legislators in the General Assembly, said that the bill was painstakingly put together by a group of people. According to one of the bill’s provisions, she pointed out, is that no one can be forced to honor it. That means if a certain religious denomination does not wish to conduct same-sex marriages, it cannot be compelled to do so.
“This is secular law, not religious law,” Ruggiero said. “That is consistent with the guarantee of freedom of religion in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. This bill does not in any way interfere with that. We don’t want to be on the wrong side of history on this issue. This is for our children and our children’s children.”
Ruggiero said that following a hearing this week it could be voted out of committee for full House consideration. She was not certain of the timing, but said it would be soon. The reason for urgency is because Gov. Lincoln Chafee is presenting his budget to the legislature this week, and a lot of attention will have to be focused on that work.
“Forty-two people in the House have signed on to the bill,” Ruggiero said. “It looks very positive. Sentiments change. The whole sentiment about marriage equality four years ago was very different than what it is today. Everyone should be able to love who they want to love and live free from discrimination. This is the right to build a life with someone that you love.”
On the Senate side, marriage equality had been pushed for many years by Rhoda Perry, who has retired. Donna Nesselbush, a secondterm Senator, has taken up the fight and introduced an identical bill to Handy’s for Senate consideration.
According to Nesselbush, Sen. President Teresa Paiva Weed has promised that there will be a vote on the bill. Nesselbush is optimistic about the prospects of passage.
Since Chafee is a supporter of marriage equality, and will undoubtedly sign the bill into law, Senate passage remains the biggest stumbling block to the bill’s success.
“I’ve said in the past that I do not intend to vote for the legislation that has been introduced in its current form,” said Paiva Weed, who represents Jamestown and Newport.
Paiva Weed said that she does not support the marriage-equality bill in its present form, but guarantees that the bill will get a fair hearing in the Senate. She points out that since Fox, who is gay, is a leader on the issue, the Senate will wait to see what emerges from the House before taking up the bill. In the past, similar bills have had amendments tacked on to them. That’s a possibility this time as well.
Paiva Weed said she does not anticipate the Senate will vote until it sees what the legislation looks like when it comes out of the House. “The speaker has been the leader on this issue and it’s very important to him,” she said. “Personally I would defer to his chamber in passing the legislation first.”
Paiva Weed thinks it will be some time until the bill comes to a vote in the Senate. “I have said publicly that while I will not personally vote for the bill, there will be a vote in committee on the bill,” she said. “The issue will certainly get a full hearing and full debate.”
Paiva Weed said that she was unable to predict at this time how the Senate might vote on the legislation when it is considered.
“I expect that it will be a very close vote in the Senate,” she said. “It’s really hard at this point in time to forecast the final outcome from the committee, or what if anything would come from the committee to the floor.”
There are several other marriage related bills that have been introduced, including one that calls for a statewide referendum on marriage equality. Paiva Weed said that all of the bills will get hearings. Chafee has publicly voiced opposition to the referendum idea, stating that in his opinion lawmakers are elected to make such decisions.