Equal rites?

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  April 8, 2009

And he's not just talking geography.

A recent study, the third in a series known as the American Religious Identification Survey, found a steep drop in the proportion of Ocean Staters identifying as Catholic — down from 62 percent in 1990 to 46 percent last year.

But Rhode Island remains the most Catholic state in the nation. And legislators say the church, however diminished, still has clout in a General Assembly with a strong Irish and Italian cast.

The church connects with lawmakers in all sorts of ways: Sunday sermons, with legislators in the pews; impromptu lobbying by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin after ceremonial visits to the legislature; direct entreaties from Healey.

And there is another, more subtle form of influence, lawmakers say — a set of ingrained expectations for men and women who grew up attending Mass on Sunday and packing off to Catholic school the next morning.

"It's social, it's casual," said state Senator Rhoda E. Perry, a Providence Democrat who backs same-sex marriage. "It's in the fabric of social interaction, when you are a legislator who is a member of a church, who is a graduate of Hendricken, a graduate of La Salle, a graduate of [Providence College]."

Of course, that fabric has frayed in the face of the priest sex abuse scandal and the state's gradual secularization. And Healey, who has been lobbying the legislature on abortion and poverty and immigration issues for a decade now, acknowledges that younger members of the Assembly do not feel the same allegiance to the church as their older colleagues.

"But if there is a kernel of faith," he said, "they're going to listen."

Healey's argument is not just that traditional "marriage and family life is the fundamental foundation of our culture and society" and should not be altered. He also maintains that same-sex marriage proponents have framed deeply held religious beliefs as mere bigotry — casting aspersions on a world view, a way of life, that many Catholics hold dear.

And if the debate is truly joined, he said, if same-sex marriage actually comes to the House or Senate floor for a vote, Catholic voters — and legislators — will mobilize to protect that way of life.

They would have allies. The state's small Muslim and Orthodox Jewish communities have also spoken out against gay marriage. And a Princeton, New Jersey-based non-profit group opposed to same-sex nuptials, the National Organization for Marriage, has set up shop in Providence.

The face of the Rhode Island branch, executive director Christopher Plante, is not the conservative firebrand one might expect.

A soft-spoken North Kingstown native, he talks warmly of same-sex marriage activists, speaks of the importance of a civil debate and calls tales of gays and lesbians unable to visit partners in the hospital "human tragedies" that must be addressed by the legislature.

He is, in short, an advocate for his time and place. And his push for a gay marriage ban comes wrapped in a neat, little democratic package.

"Let the people decide," he says, calling for a referendum on the issue.

That's easier said than done. In Rhode Island, citizens cannot collect signatures and force a popular vote. Instead, they must count on the legislature to put a question on the ballot.

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