Advocates of marriage equality in Rhode Island see their cause as gaining steam, while an alleged "compromise" bill calling for a statewide referendum is losing backers. This comes ahead of a Thursday hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will consider both bills.
The shift in momentum could lead to tight votes, both the committee and, if voted forward, on the Senate floor.
Despite a 51-19 vote by the House of Representatives in January in favor of a marriage-equality bill, the Senate, which skews much more conservative, is closely divided.
Last week, as Metro Weekly reported, a state senator opposed to marriage equality proposed S708, a so-called "compromise" bill that would allow Rhode Island voters to vote on adding a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as "a legally recognized union of two people," without reference to gender. But that bill would also go beyond providing guaranteeing exemptions for religious institutions opposed to same-sex marriage – exemptions already included in the marriage-equality bill. Instead, S708 would extend those exemptions beyond regligious institution affliliated groups, as well as to small-business owners, allowing them to violate a 1995 law that prohibits discrimination in employment, credit and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation.
The bill proposing the referendum took a hit, however, as Sens. James Doyle II (D-Pawtucket) and Leonidas "Lou" Raptakis (D-Coventry) announced Tuesday they were removing their names from the bill after hearing from constituents. Doyle also told The Providence Journal he would now support S38, the marriage-equality bill sponsored by his fellow Pawtucket Democrat, Sen. Donna Nesselbush, the chamber’s only out lesbian.
Raptakis, a member of the Judiciary Committee, which will hear both the marriage-equality and referendum bills, told the Journal that the list of exemptions in the referendum bill went “overboard.” A restaurant owner, Raptakis said he would never discriminate against someone coming into his business and said the proposed protections for small businesses goes too far.
Raptakis, who previously said he was opposed to marriage equality, also said that the calls he has been receiving have been running "seven-to-eight in favor, and probably two not supporting" the marriage-equality bill. But he did not say whether he would support the bill.
Following the announcement by Raptakis and Doyle, the pro-equality group Rhode Islanders United for Marriage issued a statement thanking the two senators for removing their names from the referendum bill.
"This is further demonstration that S708 is not an 'eminently reasonable' solution to the question of allowing all loving, committed couples the freedom to marry the person they love," Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, said in the statement. "Since the bill was filed last week, thousands of Rhode Islanders have reached out to their senators, and told them a divisive and harmful referendum was neither a solution nor a compromise. Senators Raptakis and Doyle heard the message and stood up for their constituents."
Politically, these developments could leave the Senate deadlocked on the marriage-equality bill, either in committee or on the Senate floor. Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport) is opposed to same-sex marriage but promised earlier this year that the bill would receive a vote in committee.
Of the members on the committee, Nesselbush and Sens. Stephen Archambault (D-Smithfield), Erin Lynch (D-Warwick) and Dawson Tucker Hodgson (R-North Kingstown) are marriage-equality supporters. Sen. Paul Jabour (D-Providence), who opposes marriage equality but said he would vote for it if his constituents asked him to, told the Journal Tuesday he is supporting the marriage-equality bill, meaning there are five of the six votes needed to move the measure out of committee.
Should the marriage-equality bill make it to the Senate floor, the 38-member upper house remains closely divided, with 30 senators evenly divided and eight yet to commit.
Of those eight, Sen. Nick Kettle (R-Coventry) recently told The Providence Phoenix that he has received phone calls from "thousands" of constituents, including many Catholics, who support marriage equality. The Phoenix reported that interview under a headline reading, "Kettle: I'm a 'yes' on gay marriage."
If Kettle votes in favor of the bill – together with Hodgson and Sen. Chris Ottiano (R-Portsmouth), who have announced support –a majority of the chamber’s five Republicans would be voting in favor of marriage equality. Sen. David Bates (R-Barrington) is opposed and Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere’s (R-Westerly) stance is unknown.
However, unlike Doyle and Raptakis, Kettle remains a cosponsor of referendum bill, saying his constituents favor a popular vote and he believes marriage equality would pass via referendum.
The calculus is that if Kettle votes for the marriage-equality bill, which does not allow for a referendum, the bill would have 16 votes. Three more votes could come from Jabour, Sens. Elizabeth Crowley (D-Central Falls) and Daniel DaPonte (D-East Providence). That would give the marriage-equality bloc 19 votes. But the Rhode Island Constitution does not allow lieutentant governors – now marriage-equality supporter Elizabeth Roberts (D) – to cast tie-breaking votes, meaning the hunt is on for that final vote from among the undecideds, continuing the down-to-the-wire fight.
UPDATE (7:00 p.m. EST): Kettle announced Wednesday evening that he wants to have his name removed from the list of cosponsors of S708, the referendum bill, according to The Providence Journal.
[Photo 1: Sen. James Doyle (courtesy of R.I. General Assembly). Photo 2: Sen. Leonidas Raptakis (courtesy of R.I. General Assembly).]