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Civil unions and same sex marriage (SSM)


In Rhode Island

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Rhode Island has one of the smallest populations of any U.S. state -- estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau as 1,050,788 in 2008. It is the 43rd in population of the 50 states -- with a population slightly larger than the city of San Jose, CA. 1,2

Just over 50% of its voters are Roman Catholic. This is more than double the national percentage, which is 23.9% across the entire United States. 3 A number of national polls and polls in individual states have shown that Roman Catholic adults are generally slightly more supportive of same-sex marriage (SSM) than average American adults. However, because of fierce opposition from the Church hierarchy, marriage equality took many years to accomplish there. In the meantime, Rhode Island will serve as an example of how lack of religious diversity can have a negative influence on the attainment of civil rights for minorities as a result of the power of individual faith groups.

As of early 2013, Rhode Island was the only one of the six New England states had not made same-sex marriage (SSM) available.

Bills to create same-sex marriages (SSM) in Rhode Island have been introduced to the Senate Judiciary Committee every year from 1997 to now. None have proceeded; none have even made it out of the committee. None were voted upon by the full House or Senate.

The situation is every politicians' nightmare: a horrendous lose-lose situation. A significant minority (31%) of the public is opposed to SSM. No matter what a legislator does, she or he is going to be severely condemned by a large number of voters.

Both the Roman Catholic Church and the previous governor were strongly opposed to SSM.

bulletCatholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin said:

"It should not be for us a source of embarrassment that we are the only [New England] state that does not recognize gay marriage. It should be a source of pride."4

bullet Governor Carcieri, a Republican and Roman Catholic who served from 2003 to 2011 said:

"I think we should be doing everything we can to protect traditional marriage."

The term "traditional marriage" means the union of one woman and one man and the exclusion of loving, committed same-sex couples. Opinions sharply differ among voters in Rhode Island and across the U.S.:

  • Many conservative Christians interpret six "clobber passages" in the Bible as condemning all same-gender sexual behavior. and believe that SSM represents a serious threat to the institution of opposite-sex marriage. 3 Some of them are motivated by a sincere fear that God will viciously punish any state or country where same-sex marriage is legalized. There are many stories in the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) of God punishing the ancient Hebrews because of their behavior.

  • Many liberal Christians interpret the same passages as condemning same-sex rape, temple prostitution, kidnapping slaves, adults sexually molesting children, people engaging in sexual behavior that is against their sexual orientation and basic nature, and/or engaging in bestiality. They suggest that the Bible is silent on same-sex marriage (SSM).

  • Many secularists do not feel that state laws should be based on biblical interpretations, and view access to same-sex marriage as a basic human right.

The first successful step towards marriage equality for same-sex couples came in mid-2011 when a civil unions bill was passed by the legislature. This gives same-sex couples access to almost all of the state protections, rights, and obligations automatically given to married couples. The exception is the most important right to many loving, committed same-sex couples: the right to call their relationship a marriage. However, unlike opposite-sex married couples, same-sex couples will be denied all of the 1,140 rights, privileges, and protections both because Rhode Island both does not allow them to marry, and because of the federal DOMA law. That law's constitutionality is being challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court which is expected to deliver its ruling during 2013-JUN.

On 2012-MAR-12, Governor Chafee signed an executive order recognizing same-sex marriages solemnized in other states. Thus, if and when SSM is achieved in Rhode Island, the only practical difference is that loving, committed same-sex couples will not have to go to a nearby state in order to get married.

The Rhode Island Legislature started its 2013 session on New Years Day. The Democrats have 32 seats in the state Senate; the Republicans 5; there is one independent. 5 The state House consists of 65 Democrats, and 10 Republicans. 6 The current Governor, Lincoln Chafee, has served from 2011 to the present time. He was originally a Republican, became an Independent, and is "considering running for re-election on the Democratic ticket in 2014." 7 He strongly supports SSM. 8 Recent votes on SSM bills in other states have shown that virtually all Democrat legislators favor marriage equality, while virtually all Republicans vote against it. If this voting pattern holds in Rhode Island, then a SSM bill should be a shoo-in.

The original version of the SSM bill was passed by the House with a very large majority: 51 to 19. An amended version cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee and was passed by the full Senate during late April. It was unanimously approved by the House Judiciary Committee on the evening of 2013-APR-30. However, some representatives are expected to vote against the bill when it proceeds to the House for a final vote. Governor Chafee (I) strongly supports the bill.

There is very strong support for marriage equality among the public. A poll by the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University during 2013-FEB found 60.4% support and 26.1% opposition -- a ratio of 2.3 to 1. This is the highest ratio that we had seen in any state up to that time. 593 state voters were sampled. The margin of error is ±4.0 percentage points. 9

On 2013-MAR-02. the House passed the bill with a vote of 56 to 15. The governor signed it into law. Couples will be able to pick up their marriage licenses starting on AUG-01.

Those couples who have entered into a civil union will have the choice of remaining in a civil union or marrying. No future civil unions will be performed in the state.

This makes Rhode Island the tenth state to achieve marriage equality. It is the eleventh political jurisdiction if one includes the District of Columbia. It is the final New England state to legalize SSM.

The next state to legalize same-sex marriage will probably be Delaware.

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SSM topics covered in this section:

2008 - 2009: SSM Debate

2011: SSM fails; civil unions succeed

2011 to 2013: Out-of-state SSMs recognized:

2013-JAN to APR: SSMs becoming inevitable:

Public opinion polls:

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References used:

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

  1. "State & County QuickFacks, Rhode Island," U.S. Census Bureau, at: http://quickfacts.census.gov/
  2. "List of United States cities by population," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  3. "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Summary of key findings," The Pew Forum, 2007, at: http://religions.pewforum.org/
  4. Cynthia Needham, "Why Rhode Island stands alone on same-sex marriage," Providence Journal, 2009-MAY-12, at: http://www.projo.com/
  5. "Rhode Island Senate," Ballotpedia, 2013-JAN-04, at: http://ballotpedia.org/
  6. "Rhode Island General Assembly," Ballotpedia, 2012-DEC-28, at: http://ballotpedia.org/
  7. "Lincoln Chafee," Ballotpedia, 2012-DEC-17, at: http://ballotpedia.org/
  8. "Rhode Island Gay Marriage Backers Vow To Return Next Year," On Top Magazine, 2011-JUL-06, at: http://www.ontopmag.com/
  9. "Poll: R.I. supports same-sex marriage," Brown University, 2013-FEB-28, at: http://news.brown.edu

Copyright © 2007 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-FEB-24
Latest update: 2013-MAY-01

Author: B.A. Robinson

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