Equal rites?

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  April 8, 2009

"I think you can look no further than the Rhode Island same-sex divorce case," Loewy said.

That case, Chambers v. Ormiston, focused on a lesbian couple, married in Massachusetts, which sought a divorce in Rhode Island's Family Court.

The Family Court asked the state's top jurists whether it could recognize the marriage for purposes of granting a divorce. And the Supreme Court, in a 3-2 ruling issued in December 2007, said "no," finding that the state legislature understood marriage to be a union of a man and a woman when it created the Family Court in 1961.

The ruling was a blow to same-sex marriage advocates. But it reinforced their decision to seek a legislative, rather than legal remedy. And it thrust Cassandra Ormiston, one of the parties to the case, into the spotlight — giving voice to a gay and lesbian grassroots deeply frustrated with the pace of progress in Rhode Island.

"I am over being patient about this," she said, in a recent interview. "I am a good citizen. I pay my taxes. I am a good neighbor. There is no reason in the world that any law in this state should not be available to me."

That keen sense of injustice, combined with a growing belief that gay marriage legislation is finally within reach, has forged a movement with little appetite for compromise.

Activists say civil unions, which do not afford the same rights, protections and social standing as marriage, are unacceptable. And they have support from some of the state's leading gay politicians, including Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline and Warwick state Represenative Frank Ferri.

The problem with a civil unions push, Cicilline said in an interview this week, is that it acknowledges the "separate but equal analysis" that undergirded decades of racial segregation.

But plenty of progressive legislators say it may be time to entertain a gradual approach — particularly with same-sex marriage opponents like Paiva Weed, the Senate president, suggesting they would support civil unions.

"Incremental change can be better than no change at all," said Perry, the state senator from Providence, "and it can create momentum."

090410_Legislat_m
THE LEGISLATORS Representative Arthur Handy (left) is pushing for approval of gay marriage with support from Majority Leader Gordon D. Fox (center) and Representative Frank Ferri. 

State Representative Arthur Handy, the Cranston Democrat who is the lead sponsor of the House gay marriage bill, counts himself among those who would be open to a civil unions strategy. But even he seemed leery of passing up a shot at full marriage equality.

Any push for recognition of same-sex unions is going to stir opposition, he said, and "if it's going to be a political football, let's get all the way to the goal line."

That sort of thinking is a relatively recent phenomenon. When Handy joined the legislature in 2003, he said, the gay marriage bill was little more than a political tool — an "extremist" proposal designed to make civil unions look more palatable.

But when the Massachusetts high court legalized same-sex nuptials, he said, there was a new sense of possibility. The "extreme" proposal was suddenly a viable one. And the mobilization around same-sex marriage began in earnest.

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  Topics: News Features , U.S. Government, U.S. State Government, Thomas Tobin,  More more >
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