Skip to content

The RI Gay Marriage Debate

August 2, 2012

Rhode Island has been the stage for contentious debate over same-sex marriage. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says the political landscape is shifting in favor of marriage equality.

The gay marriage debate rages across the country, from the federal courts and state houses to the frialators of the Chick-fil-A fast food empire. It’s been more than a year since the Democrats who control the Rhode Island General Assembly approved a same-sex marriage compromise that pleased no one. Lawmakers voted to allow civil unions, but refused to vote on whether gay couples deserve the same marriage rights as heterosexuals.

This didn’t come as a surprise: There are few profiles in courage serving under the capitol dome. The ancient order dictates that legislative leaders protect their members from doing what the voters sent them to Smith Hill for: to cast votes on tough issues.

The civil union measure appeared to have been an artful compromise, a middle of-the-road attempt to balance the interests of same-sex couples seeking legal recognition for their unions with traditionalists, particularly in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, who asserted that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

Sometimes when one walks down the middle of the street in politics, he or she gets hit by both sides. This is precisely what happened with civil unions.

Proponents of full-fledged marriage equality decried the compromise, saying it made them second-class citizens. As New Englanders what other conclusion could they draw?  Our neighboring states of Connecticut and Massachusetts both have full marriage equality, as do two other states in the region, New Hampshire and Vermont.

On the other side, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin said the legal acceptance of civil unions involves “a social experiment that promotes an immoral lifestyle, is a mockery of the institution of marriage as designed by God, undermines the well-being of our families, and poses a threat to religious liberty.’’

What has changed in a year? Well, public opinion is moving rapidly in favor of full marriage equality, especially among Democrats. President Barack Obama has become the first president to support gay marriage and the Democratic National Convention that meets later this summer is poised to approve a platform plank supporting marriage equality.  With Sen. Jack Reed’s evolution on the issue over the past year, the entire RI Washington delegation now supports gay marriage.

And a new public opinion survey by PEW Research shows that nearly two thirds of Democrats nationwide support marriage equality. Among all voters, marriage equality is favored by 48 percent with 44 percent against.

House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, who is openly gay, vows to bring full marriage rights for gays to a floor vote when the new Assembly convenes in January. That would leave state Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, and her  Democratic caucus as the primary roadblock to full marriage equality.

Governor Lincoln Chafee is firmly in favor of extending marriage equality to gays. He often talks about this issue in terms of economic development. It may be time to give him some credit. Gay marriage would be an obvious boost for the restaurant, hotel and catering business in such wedding locales as Newport and Providence.

On a more existential level,  it would proclaim to the world that Rhode Island is a tolerant place, willing to grasp on to a 21st century economy that welcomes everyone with talent to be part of our state. Is it a coincidence that the nation’s most tolerant cities, including San Francisco and Boston, have strong job markets that attract the educated young?

While Chick-fil-A management’s anti gay marriage stance soaks up media coverage, has anyone noticed the roster of   blue-chip American corporations that are supporting the gay marriage side of a referendum in Washington state? The list includes founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and companies like Starbucks and Nike.

General Mills, the giant cereal producer, has supported a campaign in Minnesota for gay marriage. “We believe a diverse, inclusive culture produces a stronger more engaged workforce,’’ said Ken Charles, a General Mills vice president, in a recent blog post. “Inclusive communities are more economically successful as well.’’

Any marriage equality law should be written to ensure that no church would be forced to join any couple in gay marriage.

Yet  this issue, too,  is largely a red herring. Has anyone noticed any churches closing because of gay unions in the nearby states that have adopted marriage equality?  Roman Catholics and conservative Christians still explore the grand mystery of  Christ’s divinity and teachings in houses of worship from Martha’s Vineyard to Williamstown and from Thompson to Fairfield.

Rhode Island’s business community is always saying that we need to keep our tax rates and regulatory regimes in  line with our Massachusetts and Connecticut neighbors. Why should we do any less for our gay neighbors who seek nothing more than the legal sanction and state imprimatur for rights we already enjoy?

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45. You can also follow his political commentary and reporting at the `On Politics’ blog at

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Rev. Dr. Don Anderosn permalink
    August 2, 2012 8:26 pm

    Well said, Scott. Clergy should be free to follow their conscience in this issue. If,as a matter of conscience, they do not want to perform a same gender wedding then they should not be forced to. EQUALLY important are the rights of clergy who, as a matter of conscience, feel called to perform same gender weddings. They, too, should be free to follow their conscience and not be hindered by Rhode Island law.

  2. Joan Countryman permalink
    August 2, 2012 8:38 pm

    Scott, Here’s a bumper sticker reported to me by my granddaughter:
    “Against gay marriage? Don’t get gay married.”

  3. J. Ferreira permalink
    August 2, 2012 9:16 pm

    I hate to sound like the voice of doom, but all indications are that whatever action Speaker Fox promotes early in the legislativ session, Sen. President Paiva-Weed will, as befits a politician bought and paid for by the Roman Catholic Church leadership, will block any movement of such legislation towards an open floor vote. She, and many other like-minded socially-conservative Democrats who tow the RCC party line will not allow this state to become as socially progressive as Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont or even New Hampshire. As a result, I and my partner are planning to move to MA just as soon as our house in Providence sells. I wish it could be otherwise, but we want to get married and have it be fully legal in all respects (including each of us having a say in the other getting treament in a religiously-affiliated hospital emergency room if needed), so the only way for this to happen is to abandon the state my family helped found and cross the border into MA where even Republicans can run for office while being gay!

    • Scott permalink
      August 3, 2012 5:06 am

      Enjoy Massachusetts!~ Higher employment there too.

  4. Rachel permalink
    August 2, 2012 9:18 pm

    The clergy exception is a huge red herring. Clergy are already free to decline to marry anyone they choose. No fewer than four rabbis refused to marry my husband and me several years ago because I was not Jewish. The fact that my husband’s and my imminent (heterosexual) union was completely legal did not compel them to officiate.

  5. M. Charles Bakst permalink
    August 2, 2012 9:20 pm

    An excellent column.
    I hope Senate President Paiva Weed takes it to heart.
    M. Charles Bakst

    • Scott permalink
      August 3, 2012 5:07 am

      Why should Teresa sell our her belief system because Charlie Bakst thinks it is a good idea? Ridiculous.

  6. Scott permalink
    August 3, 2012 5:06 am

    Scott isn’t telling the whole truth here. If “gay” marriage is so popular, why does it keep losing the ballot box everytime and everyplace it is brought before the voters? Because the vast majority of people do not want the family destroyed. Yet 32 times since 1998, voters have gone to the polls and voted against gay marriage.* Thirty-eight states prohibit gay marriage in some fashion. Even in “blue” states like California, Oregon and Delaware, gay marriage bans stand. North Carolina’s Amendment One Tuesday night was just the latest in a long line of failures at the ballot box for proponents of gay marriage. (Support for bans is falling over time, according to HRC: in 2004 they passed on average 71 percent to 29 percent, but in 2008 the average was 57 percent to 43 percent.)

    Gay marriage has had more success in courts and state legislatures. But still, only six states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage.

    • Mister Guy permalink
      August 3, 2012 9:14 pm

      “If ‘gay’ marriage is so popular, why does it keep losing the ballot box everytime and everyplace it is brought before the voters?”

      Because voting on whether a minority group (*any* minority group) gets rights that are enjoyed by a majority group almost never works out the way it should. People’s fundamental rights shouldn’t be put up for vote ever!

      In VT (before its civil union bill became law), the concept of civil unions went down in a massive, two-to-one defeat in a statewide, non-binding referendum. The concept of civil unions was defeated in literally every single city & town in VT except for two communities. Thankfully, VT doesn’t have a statewide binding referendum law (no state should IMHO), so it ultimately didn’t matter, since the VT Legislature had no choice but to pass a civil union law based on a then recent VT State Supreme Court case. Years later, the concept of both civil unions & gay marriage is widely popular in VT…only the far Right-wing religious whackos oppose it based on their narrow, completely religious views.

      “Thirty-eight states prohibit gay marriage in some fashion. Even in ‘blue’ states like California, Oregon and Delaware, gay marriage bans stand.”

      “only six states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage.”

      CA continues to recognize valid same-sex marriages performed either in CA or elsewhere, and CA is well on its way to overturning Proposition 8 through the U.S. court system. Oregon has recognized “domestic partnerships” since April of 2008. CO, DE, HI, ME, MD, NV, RI, WI, IL, NJ & WA state have all created legal unions for same-sex couples, and MD also recognizes same-sex marriages formed in other jurisdictions. Time is on the side of the civil union/gay marriage movement in the USA, period.

  7. Barbara S. vennerbeck permalink
    August 3, 2012 6:55 am

    Is denial of the full civil rights for same- sex married couples a matter of conscience or of control ? Thanks for thoughtful piece , Scott . and I hope the solons are reading . People with consciences will be voting in November to support those legislators who insist on equality ! Barbara Vennerbeck

    • Mario permalink
      August 6, 2012 4:48 am

      Hey Barbara… read the news… GAY MARRIAGE IS NOT A WINNER IN RI; that’s why the gay head of the General Assembly won’t put it to a vote… get it?

  8. August 4, 2012 4:25 pm

    Thanks all!


  1. Progress Report: MacKay on Marriage Equality; Regunberg on Ravitch; Paul Krugman on Presidential Politics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: