Several local and national organizations announced this morning the launch of Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, a campaign to legalize marriage equality in the state.
The coalition includes several religious, labor and civic groups including the Rhode Island Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality, which represents more than 100 clergy and faith leaders from 13 different denominations; the Rhode Island AFL-CIO; local chapters of the National Education Association (NEA); the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW); the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU); the Human Rights Campaign (HRC); the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); and Rhode Island Progressive Democrats.
Rhode Islanders United for Marriage is expected to employ grassroots organizing techniques, similar to those used successfully from legislature to ballot box in Maryland and Washington state.
"Rhode Islanders United for Marriage is a broad and growing non-partisan coalition of organizations who are coming together to stand up for all families and ensure the Ocean State joins the rest of New England in providing the unique protection and recognition that only marriage can afford," Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, said in a statement. "With more legislative sponsors and supporters than ever before, we believe we can win passage of this important civil rights act in 2013."
Applying a campaign component helpful in other states, supporters emphasized the legislative guarantees of religious entities to choose whether or not to perform same-sex marriages, regardless of securing marriage equality in Rhode Island.
"There is broad diversity within communities of faith on this issue," the Rev. Don Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, said in a statement. "That’s why this bill includes a number of commonsense exemptions that affirm a religious institution’s control over marriage eligibility within its particular faith’s tradition. No church or clergy would be required by this law to perform or recognize same-sex marriages if they go against the teachings of their particular faith."
Rev. Gene Dyszlewski, chair of the Rhode Island Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality, pointed out that the current law discriminates against churches or religions that recognize same-sex unions.
"Giving all Rhode Islanders full access to marriage is an opportunity to remove roadblocks to pastoral care for those faith traditions that welcome and affirm same-sex relationships," Dyszlewski said in the Jan. 14 announcement. "Christ welcomed all to His table and so, as faith leaders for equality, we hope to walk on the path He set for us – living by his example – and affirming His commitment to tolerance and justice."
The news event was attended by several local leaders, among them Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I), who has made passing a marriage-equality law one of his priorities.
"Rhode Island has been engaged in a lively experiment in freedom and tolerance for 350 years, and the inclusion of all our friends and neighbors under the aegis of civil marriage is the logical extension of Roger Williams’ bold stand for liberty," Chaffee said, according to the campaign’s announcement. "I am proud to stand with Rhode Islanders United for Marriage in calling for the General Assembly to send marriage equality legislation for my signature without delay, so that I can finally sign it, and we can better live up to our founder’s inclusive vision."
Chafee’s support follows his Jan. 10 announcement that he would likely veto any bill that called for a statewide referendum on the issue of marriage equality. State Sen. Frank Ciccone (D-Providence), a longtime opponent of marriage equality, is expected to introduce such a bill. Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport), also a marriage-equality opponent, has only committed to a vote in the Judiciary Committee, but told reporters she anticipated that "the concept of initiative or referendum will probably be more thoroughly debated this year than in past years."
With 42 cosponsors in the 75-member Rhode Island House of Representatives, and strong support from House Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence), who is gay, the lower chamber has more than enough votes to pass a marriage-equality bill.
Fox came under criticism in 2011 after he refused to allow a vote in the lower chamber on marriage equality, instead opting for a bill that legalized same-sex civil unions and included an amendment allowing any religious entity to refuse to recognize the legality of any civil union for any reason. In 2012 Rhode Islanders elected 16 new House legislators, 12 of whom support marriage equality. And a reshuffling of the House Judiciary Committee has resulted in a friendlier committee, with 9 of its 13 members cosponsoring the bill.
The largest hurdle to marriage equality remains the State Senate, particularly the Judiciary Committee. Four of committee’s 10 members are cosponsoring the bill.
A September 2012 poll by CBS-affiliate WPRI showed that 56 percent of presidential-year likely voters in Rhode Island support marriage equality, with 36 percent opposed and 8 percent unsure. Close to three-quarters of Democrats, one-third of Republicans and half of Independents support marriage equality, the poll found. The issue has wide support among voters ages 18 to 59. Voters 60 and older are evenly split.
The House Judiciary Committee will hear the marriage-equality legislation, introduced by Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston), Jan. 15.
In a follow-up interview with Metro Weekly, Sullivan said he did not expect a vote at Tuesday’s hearing, but hoped the legislation would be forwarded to the Senate by the end of the month.
When asked about Paiva-Weed’s decision-making in assigning what some perceive as potential opponents to the Judiciary Committee, Sullivan, himself a former House member, said that internal decisions on committee assignments often reflect more than just one issue, also noting that two legislators who were public "no" votes were removed from the committee.
"The press and some of the pundits like to focus on whip counts, a lot of the inside baseball," Sullivan said. "But really this is a campaign about protecting families, and what better way to do that than through marriage? This will be about people telling and sharing their personal stories."
He also told Metro Weekly that he doesn't believe Paiva-Weed favors bringing the issue to a referendum.
Sullivan said Rhode Islanders United for Marriage is holding phone banks and organizing volunteers to contact legislators in key districts in an attempt to lobby them to support the bill.
While he said he couldn’t comment on the internal decision-making of the many unions involved in the coalition as to how they would score legislators when it comes to voting on marriage equality, Sullivan did say that George Nee, Rhode Island AFL-CIO president, had helped lead the effort to rally unions around the cause, and said he expects Nee to testify before the General Assembly in favor of marriage equality, as he did last year.
Characterizing himself as "cautiously and guardedly optimistic" for the bill’s passage, Sullivan said he believes supporters have momentum at their backs, at both the local and national levels, for legalizing marriage equality.
[Photo 1: Ray Sullivan, from Twitter Account @RaySullivan; Photo 2: Gordon Fox, from RI House of Representatives official website.]