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Same sex marriage (SSM) in Rhode Island

2009: Senate hearing.
Support for & opposition to SSM

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2009-FEB-26: Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on SSM bills:

A bill to legalize SSM has been introduced into the legislature each year since 1997. All have failed so far.

Three bills were considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee. One would ban SSM; another would legalize SSM; a third would allow same-sex couples married in other jurisdictions to obtain a divorce in Rhode Island.

The Senate bill legalizing SSM, is identical to bill H 5744 introduced in the house by Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston) and co-signers Fox, Ajello, Ferri and Rice guarantees faith groups the freedom to discriminate against sexual minorities. It says:

"15-3-5.1: Protection of freedom of religion in marriage:... Each religious institution has exclusive control over its own religious doctrine, policy, and teachings regarding who may marry within their faith, and on what terms. No court or other state or local governmental body, entity, agency or commission shall compel, prevent, or interfere in any way with any religious institution's decisions about marriage eligibility within that particular faith's tradition."

"... ordained clergy, ministers or elders as described and authorized in sections 15-3-5 and 15-3-6 of the general laws to officiate at a civil marriage shall not be obligated or otherwise required by law to officiate at any particular civil marriage or religious rite of marriage." 2

The bills also specify that no member of the clergy of any religion shall be "obligated or otherwise required by law to officiate at any particular civil marriage or religious rite of marriage."

However, wedding photographers, florists, limousine drivers, and individuals who provide similar services to the general public and who want to discriminate against same-sex couples are not protected. They might find themselves subject to a human rights complaint.

The bill to ban SSM was introduced by Senator Leo Blais (R-Coventry). He read a written testimony by Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin who said:

"Contrary to the assertion of others, this is not an issue about civil rights. Freedom is not unbridled license. ... In short, there's never a right to do something wrong. ... The fact that two adults consent to an action doesn't make it morally right or socially acceptable. After all, two consenting adults can engage in drug use, prostitution, bigamy, polygamy or other immoral activities."

"... hatred, persecution, prejudice and ridicule of homosexuals is a grave sin. But we also believe that homosexual activity is immoral and contrary to natural law, the tenets of the Bible, and the teaching of the Church."

Some testimony:

bullet Mark S. Goldberg testified of his unsuccessful attempts to convince the sate to release the body of his partner so that his wish to be cremated could be carried out. He showed the police and the state medical examiner's office "our wills, living wills, power of attorney and marriage certificate" from Connecticut, but no one was willing to look at the documents. He was initially unsuccessful because he was not legally married or a blood relative." He finally got control of his partner's body and had him cremated in Massachusetts.
bullet Kathy Kushnir, executive director of the local branch of Marriage Equality said: "Rhode Island has become an island of inequality." 3
bullet Rep. Frank Ferri, (D-Warwick) with his partner of 28 years and husband Tony Caparco, at his side said:
"Many of you think that supporting marriage equality would be detrimental to your elections. I pose this question to you: how is it that I was elected? I believe that the majority of Rhode Islanders are of the mind: live and let live. As their priorities, they are worried about the economy, education, health care and the environment." 3
None of the bills proceeded to the full Senate for a debate and vote.

2009-FEB: Support for & opposition to SSM and civil unions:

There is continuing support for SSM in Rhode Island:

bullet Kathy J. Kushnir, executive director of  Marriage Equality of Rhode Island said: "Our position is certainly that separate is not equal. We support full and equal marriage rights for all Rhode Islanders."
bullet Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, a former state senator and former co-sponsor of same-sex marriage bills said: "No law should dictate the religious traditions of marriage [but the] civil right to marriage is an important civil right [all] committed couples are entitled to."
bullet Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch says he supports same-sex marriage because he views it as "... the human-rights, civil-rights issue of our day. ... I was trained to fight for the equality of citizens." 

There is also opposition to SSM:

bullet A spokesperson for House Speaker William J. Murphy, (D-West Warwick) said that Murphy believes that a marriage in his eyes: "... is between a man and a woman."
bullet A spokesperson for Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, (D-Newport) said that she remains opposed to SSM believing: "That is my personal position. ... As a member of my community, I feel that I am in tune with them." 

But there is also support for creating civil unions as a partial first step towards eventual legalization of SSM:

bullet David N. Cicilline, the openly gay mayor of Providence, RI, has heard many horror stories about long-time partners being considered mere roommates, and blocked from visiting their partners in hospitals, or having their partner's burial plans overruled by others. He had been a firm supporter of SSM, but now is considering the creation of civil unions or domestic partnerships as a partial first step towards SSM. He said:

"You think about the time in this country when it was illegal for people of different races to marry. And think: How could that have been? ... I think we are coming to the point where we need to have a serious conversation as a community about [whether] we try to move forward incrementally."

bullet M. Teresa Paiva Weed, while opposing SSM, does support civil unions as a method of giving same-sex couples some of the rights and benefits of marriage, without using the word "marriage."
bullet Rep. Joseph Trillo, (R)  said:

"I think a majority of people have a problem using the word 'marriage.' I think the word 'marriage' needs to be preserved for a man and a woman because it is different. It would be like calling soccer, 'football.' Both kick a ball around but the game is played differently."

He said that he supports the concept of civil unions or life partnerships because:

"I basically believe in their cause. I think it needs a term or a word used to describe it that would make it totally understandable for what it is. At this juncture, I believe that civil unions would be a recognition of a commitment between two individuals, that if drafted properly could, in fact, entitle those individuals to many of the benefits that the law provides [to opposite-sex married couples]. 4

Texts of the main bills proposed:

bullet The text of S 0136: "An act relating to domestic relationships -- person's eligible to marry" is online. It "... would prohibit same sex marriages in the state and would prohibit the state from recognizing a relationship between persons of the same sex as a marriage." 5
bullet The text of S 0147: "An act relating to domestic relationships -- person's eligible to marry" is online. It "would broaden the definition of persons eligible to marry to include persons of the same gender. This act would also provide that members of the clergy would not be required to officiate at any particular marriage." 6

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Michael A Jones, "Not All Catholics Follow Pope Benedict XVI on Same-Sex Marriage," Marriage Equality RI, 2009-FEB-17, at:
  2. "An act relating to domestic relations -- persons eligible to marry: H 5744," 2009, State of Rhode Island, at: This is a PDF file.
  3. Katherine Gregg, "R.I.'s dueling same-sex marriage bills elicit personal stories," Rhode Island News, 2009-FEB-27, at:
  4. Katherine Gregg, "R.I. legislators to take up annual gay marriage debate," Rhode Island News, 2009-FEB-22, at:
  5. Text of S 0136: "An act relating to domestic relationships -- person's eligible to marry," Rhode Island legislature, at:

Copyright 2007 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-FEB-24
Latest update: 2009-JUL-07
Author: B.A. Robinson

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