In R.I., hopes fading for gay marriage bill

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / June 28, 2011

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If any state would seem poised to approve gay marriage, it’s Rhode Island.

It has an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature, the nation’s first openly gay House speaker, a governor who strongly supports same-sex marriage, and two New England neighbors that allow gay couples to wed.

Instead, the state is expected this week to approve civil unions, effectively killing gay marriage legislation with an attempted compromise that has provoked strong opposition from both sides of the issue.

While New York injected new life into the gay rights movement Friday by approving same-sex marriage, Rhode Island’s torturous debate underscores the rocky path the issue has taken in New England, a historically liberal region some activists once believed would be a gay marriage bastion by 2012.

Four out of the six New England states allow gay marriage and two, Rhode Island and Maine, do not. And their prospects for approving same-sex marriage are not imminent.

Voters in Maine repealed their gay marriage law in a 2009 referendum, six months after it was signed by the governor, and gay rights activists are still plotting their next steps there. Rhode Island activists on both sides of the divide are fighting the civil union bill and believe gay marriage legislation may not be revived again until next year, at the earliest.

Hopes for passage were crushed in April when Gordon D. Fox, who came out as gay in 2004 and was elected speaker of the House last year, abruptly reversed course, stunning gay rights activists.

Although a supporter of same-sex marriage, he announced that he would back civil unions instead, arguing that marriage legislation was not worth a vote in the House because there was “no realistic chance’’ it would pass in the Senate.

“We were really blindsided by his decision,’’ said Karen L. Loewy, a lawyer at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, who called Fox’s reversal “incredibly unfair.’’

Gay marriage opponents are pleased, for the moment.

“I’m very hesitant to call it a victory, because we know there’s a lot of work to do and this is not the kind of thing we would celebrate and gloat over,’’ Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of the Providence Diocese said yesterday.

“I know this is a very difficult and sometimes painful issue for people who have same-sex attraction. . . . On the other hand, we will resist legislation that we think is improper or harmful to our culture or society.’’

A Public Policy Polling survey in February indicated that 50 percent of Rhode Islanders support gay marriage, while 41 percent oppose it. But lawmakers have turned back gay marriage bills since 1997, Loewy said.

Lincoln D. Chafee, Rhode Island’s independent governor, said the state has been slow to embrace the issue because it has two influential constituencies that tend to hold traditional views on marriage.

Rhode Island, he said, has among the highest percentage of elderly residents, and about 60 percent of its residents are Roman Catholic, more than any other state in the nation.

“The church is very active here in Rhode Island, calling senators and representatives,’’ Chafee said.

In addition, former governor Donald L. Carcieri, a Republican who led Rhode Island from 2003 until January, was a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage.

“We’ve all been frustrated by the slowness of the progress in Rhode Island,’’ Loewy said.

“In particular, once Governor Chafee came into office, there was cause for more optimism.’’

Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, by a court order that took effect in 2004. Connecticut was next, with a court ruling in 2008. The legislatures of Vermont and New Hampshire approved gay marriage in 2009. Iowa and Washington, D.C., also allow same-sex couples to wed. Twenty-nine states have constitutional bans on gay marriage, and 12 others have laws against it.

In Rhode Island, the House approved civil unions in May, and the Senate is planning to take up the measure as soon as tomorrow. Forces on both sides, however, are fighting it.

Gay rights activists say the bill includes overly broad protections for religiously affiliated organizations that could, for example, allow a Catholic hospital to bar a gay man from participating in his partner’s medical decisions.

“It’s Draconian, and it has the potential to harm thousands of gay and lesbian couples in loving, committed relationships,’’ said Ray Sullivan, campaign director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island.

The Catholic Church, meanwhile, is battling civil unions because they amount to “approval of an immoral lifestyle and we know it can lead to the approval of same-sex marriage,’’ Tobin said.

Chafee said he is aware of the concerns, but is inclined to sign the measure. He hopes the major push Governor Andrew Cuomo made to approve same-sex marriage in New York will eventually propel full marriage rights for gays and lesbians in Rhode Island.

But he acknowledges that prospect is now far from reality.

“We’re turning the corner,’’ said the governor. “But it’s been slow.’’

Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.