In the aftermath of Valentine’s Day, leaders of Rhode Island’s same-sex marriage movement are concerned that new legislation — in support of civil unions — could prevent the eventual granting of full marriage rights for gays and lesbians.
Last week, State Representative Paul Crowley (D-Newport) introduced House Bill 5356, which would allow any couple, gay or straight, to enter into a civil union that would confer the same legal rights as marriage.
Jenn Steinfeld, the director of Marriage Equality RI (MERI), says the group neither supports nor opposes civil unions, although she believes civil unions are more likely to sap energy from the pro-marriage movement than to push it forward. (Disclosure: my employer, the Ocean State Action Fund, is MERI’s fiscal agent.) But MERI’s fundamental concern with Crowley’s bill lies with one sentence in its definitions: “ ‘Marriage’ means the legally recognized union of one man and one woman.”
Rhode Island law is murky in its definition of marriage — it neither explicitly endorses same-sex marriage nor bans it. This ambiguity allowed a Massachusetts judge to rule last fall that Rhode Island same-sex couples could legally marry in the Bay State. The Crowley bill would eliminate this ambiguity, and likely take cross-border marriage rights with it.
“Anything that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, we’re absolutely opposed to,” Steinfeld says.
Representative Art Handy (D-Cranston), the lead sponsor of equal marriage legislation in the House, says many legislators contend that they should pass civil unions now and consider marriage later. However, Handy says, that argument “kind of gets lost if you’re defining marriage as between a man and a woman” in the context of a civil unions bill.
For his part, Crowley said he modeled his bill almost exactly on the bill that established civil unions in Vermont, and that his goal was to extend rights in a way that would be comfortable for a majority of his constituents. The definition of marriage, which came straight from the Vermont statute, “wasn’t put in there with any sense of subterfuge on my part.”
It’s unclear whether Speaker William J. Murphy, a staunch gay marriage opponent, might support civil unions. Crowley, a veteran lawmaker who holds a powerful spot as deputy chair of the House Finance Committee, says he had not yet had the chance to discuss the bill with Murphy. Spokesman Larry Berman says the speaker remains opposed to gay marriage, but hasn’t reviewed the civil union proposal yet.
Still, Handy sounds a positive note about the equal marriage bill, saying it “has a lot of support — it’s gaining support every year.” He says the House, where advocates have focused their energy, and where the bill has more than two-dozen sponsors, “has demonstrated a real open-mindedness about the issue once they’ve had an opportunity to be educated about the issue.”
But the socially conservative Senate, which last year passed a bill last year requiring a 24-hour waiting period for abortions, by a 27-9 vote, provides an even greater hurdle for the marriage equality forces.
: This Just In
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