Equal rites?

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  April 8, 2009

Six years later, proponents can claim a broad coalition. A group of 110 religious leaders have formed the Rhode Island Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality. Handy has corralled 31 sponsors for his bill, in a 75-member House. And the top gubernatorial hopefuls, eager to court the liberal and moderate voters who power Rhode Island elections, are lining up to trumpet their same-sex marriage bona fides.

The momentum around the legislation has only built with the regional and national developments of recent weeks. There was the override in Vermont, of course. And in New Hampshire, the House of Representatives narrowly approved a gay marriage bill last month. But there was also news out of Iowa, where the state's high court overturned a ban on same-sex marriage, expanding the playing field to the nation's heartland — and suggesting that even states with a strong cultural conservative streak, states like Rhode Island, could be poised for change.

Of course, turning potential into reality is no small undertaking. Significant cultural and political barriers to same-sex marriage remain in the Ocean State. But there is an undeniable shift underway — a shift embodied in the story of state Representative John J. McCauley Jr. (D-Providence).

An altar boy at St. Patrick's Church who grew up attending Catholic schools, he opposed same-sex marriage when he joined the Assembly in what he called his "young and dumb" days.

But something changed over time, McCauley said. Constituents pressed him on the issue. Fatherhood softened him.

"After many years of keeping a closed mind and closed ears," he said, "I opened them."

A few years ago, McCauley signed onto the same-sex marriage bill. And now, he is an impatient advocate for a vote. Rhode Island's gays and lesbians should not have to wait any longer, he said.

"They've been strung along long enough."

David Scharfenberg can be reached at dscharfenberg@phx.com.

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