And if the issue went before the voters, there is good reason to believe that same-sex marriage advocates would prevail. The latest poll from Marriage Equality shows 49 percent of Rhode Islanders in favor of gay marriage and 37 percent opposed — with Catholics only slightly less supportive than the general population.
But it is easy to see why Plante would push for a referendum.
Voters in fully 28 states have banned gay marriage since 1998, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And the push for a popular vote has given conservatives like State Representative Jon D. Brien, a Woonsocket Democrat who is sponsoring referendum legislation, a compelling talking point in the verbal joust with same-sex marriage proponents.
"If you have a majority," he said, referring to the Marriage Equality poll, "put up or shut up."
CHOOSING THE RIGHT FORUM
Gay marriage backers say they are confident they could prevail at the ballot box. But Kushnir, of Marriage Equality, said a plebiscite is not the appropriate forum for a decision on basic civil rights.
"You don't put the rights of a minority group in the hands of the majority," she said.
Advocates are particularly mindful of California voters' surprise endorsement of a same-sex marriage ban this fall. Conservatives combined a strong ground operation with an effective — and, critics say, alarmist — advertising campaign to produce a victory in one of the nation's bluest states.
And there are early indications that opponents of same-sex marriage would employ a similar strategy in Rhode Island, should the measure go before voters.
The National Organization for Marriage unveiled a television advertising campaign Wednesday morning, complete with a press conference featuring Carcieri, that will target Rhode Island and five other states — Vermont, New Jersey, New York, Iowa, and Pennsylvania.
The minute-long ad at the center of the campaign, titled "Gathering Storm," suggests same-sex marriage would pose a threat to religious liberties: forcing the faithful to accept a public education system that equates same-sex and traditional marriage.
Same-sex marriage advocates have dismissed the arguments as overblown attempts to distract from what is, at its core, a civil rights issue. "This messaging is clearly a smokescreen," said Kushnir, "and cobbled together out of a fear that is completely unfounded."
And they have sought to blunt concerns about religious freedom by emphasizing a provision in the same-sex marriage legislation, similar to those found in the Vermont and Maine bills, stating that "each religious institution has exclusive control over its own religious doctrine, policy, and teachings regarding who may marry within their faith."
But Plante called that provision weak, stood by the advertising campaign and voiced hope that it would sway legislators in the short term — and lay the groundwork for a victorious referendum in the long term.
A referendum is not the only forum that could prove less-than-advantageous for same-sex marriage proponents. Advocates have also steered clear of a full-fledged court fight.
Karen L. Loewy, a staff attorney with Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), which took the lead on the Massachusetts and Connecticut cases, said the high courts in those states have a history of interpreting their constitutions in a "robust" fashion. But the Rhode Island Supreme Court, she said, has taken a more restrained approach.