Supporters of marriage equality in the Ocean State got a huge boost Tuesday morning from Senate Republicans, just hours ahead of a scheduled vote by the State Senate Judiciary Committee on three bills: two that would allow same-sex couples access to marriage licenses; and one that would allow Rhode Island voters to approve or reject same-sex marriage.
All five members of the Rhode Island Senate Republican Caucus – Minority Leader Dennis Algiere (Westerly) and Sens. Dawson Tucker Hodgson (North Kingstown), Christopher Ottiano (Portsmouth), Nick Kettle (Coventry) and David Bates (Barrington), a former opponent of same-sex marriage – announced their support for S38, the marriage-equality bill sponsored by out lesbian Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket), in a statement this morning.
The statement did not mention of S708, an opposing bill sponsored by Sen. Frank Ciccone (D-Providence), which would place a measure on the November 2014 ballot asking voters to approve or reject same-sex marriages, but includes a number of far-reaching religious/moral excepmtions that would extend to non-religious organizations such as the Knights of Columbus and small-business owners or managers, allowing them to deny service to gays and lesbians in public accommodations. Such exemptions would gut parts of a 1995 measure, signed into law by former Gov. Lincoln Almond (R), that prohibits discrimination in employment, credit, housing and public accommodation based on sexual orientation. Bates and Kettle previously signed on as cosponsors of S708, though Kettle later withdrew his support.
Through their endorsement of the marriage-equality bill, the caucus becomes the first of either major political party to unanimously support the freedom to marry. It also places them in stark contrast to their six fellow Republicans in Rhode Island’s House of Representatives, five of whom voted in January against H5015, a marriage-equality bill nearly identical to S38, with House Minority Leader Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield) casting the sole "aye" vote.
"Our Senate Republican Caucus is deeply committed to the values of freedom, liberty and limited government," the members of the caucus said in this morning's statement. "In accordance with those values, we believe that freedom means freedom for everyone, and that every citizen of Rhode Island deserves the freedom to marry the person they love."
The five senators join 209 other Republican state legislators across the country who have supported marriage-equality bills or blocked attempts to repeal same-sex marriage laws.
The caucus members also addressed concerns over religious protections provided in S38, a sticking point – though far less expansive than those in S708 – that some conservative Rhode Island Senate Democrats say don't go far enough.
"We support Senate Bill 38 because it rightfully extends the civil aspects of marriage to all Rhode Islanders while protecting the freedom of religion our state was founded upon," the caucus members said in their joint statement. "Gay and lesbian couples deserve to be treated equally under the law, and at the same time churches, synagogues and mosques in our state must be free to exercise their faith and sacraments as they see fit. This bill strikes the right balance and should be passed by the Senate."
Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, the lead group pushing for marriage equality in the state, issued a statement praising the Senate Republicans' announcement.
"We are proud and humbled to have earned the support of the entire Senate Republican caucus for Senator Nesselbush's legislation," Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, said in the statement. "We applaud their courage and their conviction in standing up for all loving, committed couples and their freedom to marry.
"That this is the first legislative caucus of either party to unanimously support marriage equality is a testament to the bravery and strength of character of these five senators. We thank them for their support, and look forward to their voting in favor of S38."
The endorsement by the full Republican caucus means that S38 stands a good chance of passing, if it makes it through the Judiciary Committee later today.
That committee is chaired by Sen. Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick), a very vocal opponent of marriage equality. Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport), also an opponent of marriage equality, has said she doesn't foresee using her position as an ex-officio member of the committee to break a tie should the 10-member committee deadlock when voting on the marriage bill.
Four of the committee's members are cosponsors of the marriage bill, including Nesselbush and Hodgson, who is the panel's sole Republican. A fifth member, Sen. Paul Jabour (D-Providence), says he personally opposes same-sex marriage but has repeatedly promised his more liberal constituency that he would vote in favor of the bill if his constituents contact him and ask him to do so.
Three other Judiciary Committee members, including McCaffrey, oppose marriage equality. That means the bill's fate will likely be decided by freshman Sen. William Conley (D-East Providence), who is thought to be one of two remaining swing votes in the Senate, and Sen. Leonidas "Lou" Raptakis, an opponent of same-sex marriage who previously said he hadn't made a "firm decision" whether to vote to move the measure to the Senate floor for a debate by the full chamber, and who recently withdrew his support from S708, saying he felt its wide swath of religious exemptions went "overboard."
Political observers will be watching the committee hearing for any indications as to whether Paiva-Weed, or by proxy, McCaffrey, are trying to use their clout or influence as members of Senate leadership to keep potential "aye" votes in line. The Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing is scheduled for Tuesday at 3 p.m., with votes expected on all three measures – H5015, S38 and S708 – pertaining to marriage equality.
Should S38 pass the committee, it stands a good chance in the Senate. Five Senate Republicans, plus 10 Democratic cosponsors, would give the bill 15 of the 20 votes it needs for passage. In addition, if six other Democratic senators who have previously pledged their support keep their promises to vote for the measure, there will be at least 21 legislators in the 38-member chamber voting in favor of marriage equality.
[Photo 1: Republican Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere (courtesy of the R.I. General Assembly).
Photo 2: Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed (courtesy of the R.I. General Assembly).]