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Updated: As a crucial Rhode Island Senate committee considers marriage equality, old battle lines delimit a possible pitfall

Civil Unions Marriage equality

By Jacob Combs

Providence Journal/Connie Grosch
Rhode Island State Senator Frank Ciccone

The civil unions bill that passed the Rhode Island legislature in 2011 and was signed into law by Gov. Lincoln Chafee did so with more of a whimper than a bang, quickly earning a place in the history of LGBT rights in America as an unpopular measure which found few friends on either side of the marriage equality debate.

Although the measure extended tax, healthcare, and estate planning protections to same-sex couples, it was derided both by opponents of equal marriage rights–who said it would lead to the court-ordered imposition of full marriage equality on the state–and by supporters of marriage for same-sex couples, who decried a controversial amendment to the bill added in the state House that granted religiously affiliated groups and institutions the ability to essentially ignore a couple’s civil union by citing religious objections.

That provision of the bill, known as the Corvese amendment after the North Providence representative who introduced it, has led to Rhode Island having one of the lowest rates of adoption for civil unions of any state to offer similar legal protections to same-sex couples.  In the first few months during which civil unions were available in Rhode Island, only 14 couples chose to apply for the new designation, leading the ACLU to declare the civil unions law a “bust.”

An ACLU report from February 2012, issued six months after the civil unions law went into effect, found that the number of couples in civil unions had risen only to 40.  In Hawaii and Delaware, two other states with similar populations to Rhode Island that approved civil unions legislation in 2011, more than 100 couples filed for civil unions licenses in the first month alone.

Despite this rather objective demonstration of the Rhode Island civil union bill’s failure, religious exemptions may again be the key to the fate of a proposed marriage equality bill which passed the Rhode Island House in late January and is scheduled for consideration by a state Senate panel this Thursday.  

In an AP report published last week, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed–who personally opposes marriage equality–said that the entire bill may rest on the broadness of the religious exemptions clause, noting that some senators want to see opt-out provisions for religious institutions and even private individuals who oppose equal marriage rights.  The House version of the bill included explicit language that underscored that religious institutions already have and will continue to retain control over whom they choose to marry, but for some opponents of gay and lesbian unions, these provisions did not go far enough.

Last week, supporters of a broad religious exemptions provision may have gotten their wish–sort of–in another bill introduced by Sen. Frank Ciccone, a Providence Democrat, that will also be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow alongside the marriage equality bill.  Ciccone’s bill would legalize marriage equality in Rhode Island, but only after the issue were put to a vote of the people in a popular referendum and provided it contained broad religious exemptions.  Ciccone’s proposed legislation included the following language:

“[A] refusal by a small business to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods or privileges … [to same-sex couples] shall not create a civil claim or cause of action or result in any state or local governmental action to penalize, withhold benefits from, or discriminate against the small business.”

In essence, Ciccone’s bill would go further than the Corvese amendment, allowing even private individuals–say, the owner of a bakery who opposed marriage equality–to deny goods and services to same-sex couples.

Unexpectedly–and in a somewhat contradictory statement–Thomas J. Tobin, the Bishop of Providence, publicly endorsed Ciccone’s bill despite the fact that it could lead eventually to marriages for same-sex couples:

“We will continue to vigorously oppose efforts to redefine the institution of marriage in Rhode Island. Nevertheless, the legislation introduced by Senator Ciccone presents an eminently reasonable approach to this divisive issue. It advances the discussion in a positive and democratic way, while at the same time safeguarding the rights of all parties. The citizens of Rhode Island have a right to vote on this crucial issue.”

In an email sent to supporters and posted on its website, the National Organization for Marriage Rhode Island communicated its approval of the bishop’s support for Ciccone’s bill, writing, “We stand alongside the bishop 100% in this statement.”

Supporters of marriage equality in Rhode Island are unimpressed by Ciccone’s bill.  “We don’t see this as a compromise,” Ray Sullivan, the campaign director of Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, told EqualityOnTrial.  “There’s nothing reasonable about allowing discrimination against our gay and lesbian friends and neighbors.  That’s against the law already–it’s a dramatic rollback of the state’s anti-discrimination laws.”

Yesterday, Senators Leonidas Raptakis and James Doyle II announced that they were removing their names as sponsors of Sen. Ciccone’s bill.  Sen. Doyle also announced for the first time that he would vote in favor of the marriage equality bill should it come up for a full floor vote in the Senate.

Sullivan also reiterated marriage equality proponents’ opposition to a popular referendum on the issue, pointing out that House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is openly gay and who shepherded the bill to a dramatic 51-19 vote in his chamber, is firmly opposed to any legislation that contains provisions for a ballot vote on equal marriage rights.  Rhode Island has no proposition or ‘people’s veto’ procedures, meaning any such referendum would have to come from the legislature.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is seen as a significant obstacle to the marriage equality bill on its way to becoming law.  Sen. Michael McCaffrey, the chair of the committee, opposes marriage equality.  Of the ten senators on the committee, four are likely ‘yes’ votes and four are likely ‘no’ votes.  The other two, Sens. Paul Jabour and William Conley, have made conflicting statements on the issue in the past.

In an interview with EqualityOnTrial in early February, House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, the only Republican in the chamber to vote for the bill–said that he believes the bill will pass if brought up on the Senate floor.

Sullivan expressed a similar sentiment:  “If a vote were called on Sen. Nesselbush’s marriage bill, we can get that bill to the floor.  If we can get to the floor, I think we can win.”

UPDATE (5:00 Eastern): As the Providence Journal reported yesterday, two Rhode Island state senators have asked to have their names removed from the list of sponsors for Ciccone’s bill.  One of them, Sen. James Doyle II, who said in January he would oppose marriage equality legislation, has now indicated that he will vote in favor of Sen. Nesselbush’s bill.

The other senator, Leonidas Raptakis, who had said in January that he believed the voters should have the final say on the matter, told the ProJo that he is now open to supporting the Nesselbush bill on the basis of constituent calls which have been “probably seven to eight in favor and probably two not supporting.”

Raptakis’s support would be extremely important, since he is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee which will consider the measures tomorrow.  According to the ProJo, four senators on the committee, including Paul Jabour (who, as noted above, has waffled on the issue in the past), said yesterday that they will support Nesselbush’s legislation.  One other senator is a cosponsor of the bill and a supporter; three senators have committed to vote against the bill.  One senator, William Conley, says is he waiting to make a decision on the legislation until after he hears testimony.  If Raptakis were to vote yes on the measure, it would move out of committee onto the full Senate floor regardless of Conley’s final vote on the measure.

The judiciary committee is not expected to take a vote on either bill during tomorrow’s hearing.

Another state senator, Republican Nick Kettle, announced this week that he will vote yes on Nesselbush’s bill if it is considered by the full Senate because he has heard in favor of the measure from thousands of constituents.

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