Rhode Island's Bipartisan Gay-Marriage Coup

Same-sex marriage advocates have had their eyes on Rhode Island for a long time. Wednesday afternoon, they’ll very likely see the last barrier to marriage equality fall away, as the state Senate is scheduled to vote on a measure legalizing same-sex marriage. It’s already passed the House, receiving vocal support from Governor Lincoln Chafee, and most expect that the Senate has the votes to pass it by a big margin.

The Senate has always been the biggest challenge in Rhode Island; the leadership opposes the measure, and two years ago, a similar bill died when it became clear it couldn’t get through the upper chamber. But this year, advocates expect a very different outcome. As if to highlight the shift, on Tuesday, in advance of the bill, the minority caucus in the Senate came out with a unanimous show of support.

It’s the first time any caucus in any state has shown such a united front. More surprising? It’s the Republican caucus. Meanwhile it’s been Democratic Senate leadership that’s posed the largest threat to marriage equality in the state.

While there are only five Republicans in a Senate that has 33 seats, Tuesday’s joint statement added extra oomph to the legislative effort as the measure passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee with a vote of 7-4, and will no doubt do the same later today as it heads to the chamber floor. “Gay and lesbian couples deserve to be treated equally under the law,” the Republicans' statement read. They said that the bill, which provides broad discretion for religious officials who refuse to perform same sex ceremonies, “strikes the right balance” between religious freedom and civil liberties for gay residents.

Rhode Islanders United, a lead group in the campaign for same-sex marriage, called the senators’ move “a testament to the bravery and strength of character of these five senators.”

“We’ve discussed it as a caucus for quite some time,” says Republican Senator Dawson Hodgson. This is, he says, a “unique opportunity for us to demonstrate that we as Republicans believe in a consistent application of conservative principles.”

The issue of same-sex marriage has loomed large in this legislative session in Rhode Island, and shows how, at the state level, partisan positions can diverge sharply from those commonly held at the national level. Rhode Island's Democratic Speaker of the House Gordon Wood, who is gay and supports the measure, helped shepherd the measure through his own chamber, where there was significant support, including from Republican Minority Leader Brian Newberry. But Democratic Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed has long opposed such measures. This year, however, Paiva-Weed promised that despite her personal opposition, the bill would get a vote.

Nationally and in most states, Republicans have stood in in staunch opposition to gay marriage measures. Those who have broken rank—like the Republican co-sponsor of a gay marriage bill in Minnesota or the Illinois state party chair who champions same-sex marriage—have faced threats of political challenges. Last year, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill legalizing gay marriage, after trying to avoid taking a position.

The trouble for Republican officeholders is that while their current party members tend to oppose same-sex marriage, the tide is clearly turning. A majority of Americans now support gay marriage, and those numbers are on the rise, particularly among younger voters. Many in the GOP face the difficult position of either being on the wrong side of their party or the wrong side of history.

In Rhode Island, the Republican senators’ position is not without political risk. Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere has been under particular pressure. Algiere, who had not taken a position until he voted for the measure in the Judiciary Committee, became the target of a campaign from the National Organization for Marriage, one of the most outspoken groups opposing gay marriage. On April 9, NOM took out a full-page ad in the Westerly Sun that blared: “Senator Algiere, We’re Counting on You.” The group promised a primary challenge if the senator supported the measure.

Obviously such threats didn’t have the desired effect—likely because NOM is losing the battle of public opinion. Republican Hodgson doesn't hold back in criticizing NOM or the Catholic Church, the two groups that have been most outspoken in opposing same sex marriage laws. The campaign against same sex-marriage “pushed me to support it [as] a matter of urgency,” says Hodgson. The Church has “crossed the line between what the church should be doing in civil society," he says, "and just abusing their position” He calls the targeting of Algiere “unconscionable.”

The Rhode Island Republicans say that support of gay marriage is a conservative position. In the past, Hodgson sponsored legislation to make all marriages civil unions under the eyes of the law, a move he said would have at least made all couples equal. He says, however, that same sex-marriage is a better solution. From the governor’s mansion, Chafee, a Republican-turned-Independent, has touted the economic benefits of legalizing same-sex marriage, arguing that more businesses will want to locate to a state where gay employees can get the same economic benefits as their straight counterparts.

The campaign has been hard-fought, and comes after years of effort. According to Rhode Islanders United, volunteers have “knocked on more than 25,000 doors, made more than 12,000 phone calls, had 24,511 conversations with their fellow Rhode Islanders about the freedom to marry and delivered 1,631 constituent letters supporting marriage equality legislation.” In 2011, the state passed a civil unions law, and Chafee signed an executive order last year to recognize same-sex couples married out of state.

This week has already been a significant one for same sex-marriage advocates. On Monday, the Nevada Senate passed a resolution to repeal the state’s gay marriage ban, and Tuesday, the Delaware House approved a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. Both measures now need approval in the other chamber. There are also active measures in Illinois and Minnesota, as well as a campaign to overturn the Christie veto in New Jersey. In November, the movement got a new shot of momentum when voters in three states—Washington, Maryland, and Maine—approved same-sex marriage measures, while voters in Minnesota rejected a constitutional amendment to ban it. 

Assuming it passes, Rhode Island will be the tenth state in the county—along with D.C.— to offer marriage equality for same-sex couples. It will also the first place where Republican support has been so adamant. But it’s unlikely to be the last.



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