Ocean State News Update: Senate panel to hear same-sex marriage bills Thursday

by John Perilli

The Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee will conduct a hearing for two bills relating to same-sex marriage Thursday. The first, Senate Bill 38, is a companion to the bill that passed the Rhode Island House of Representatives in January. It modifies Rhode Island’s General Laws so that two people of any sex can marry, while also upholding free exercise protections for churches and other religious institutions that do not wish to perform same-sex weddings.

“I implore my colleagues to join me in casting a vote on the right side of history,” said Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket), a member of the Judiciary Committee and one of the bill’s Senate sponsors. “The train has left the station. Marriage equality is inevitable.”

However, in a recent development, Sen. Frank Ciccone (D-Providence) introduced the second bill, a counterproposal that would put the question of same-sex marriage on the ballot. The proposed ballot measure would amend the Rhode Island Constitution so that “the right of the people to marry shall not be denied on the basis of gender,” but also so that religious institutions and small businesses cannot be forced to facilitate same-gender marriages. This small business provision has stirred a significant amount of controversy: Supporters of same-sex marriage call it discrimination, while others believe it to be a legitimate respect of the free exercise of religion.

For those who feel strongly, testimony for both bills will start in Room 313 of the State House at around 5 p.m., after Thursday’s Senate session adjourns. Interest groups on both sides are at this moment coordinating their spokespeople, and each should marshal a formidable force. When the House of Representatives debated the same-sex marriage bill, the committee hearing lasted long into the evening, and this crucial Senate hearing may be even more crowded: It is perhaps one of the last times open testimony will be held on this issue.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will not be voting Thursday, but analysts across the state are already counting heads. The 10-member committee is evenly split between strong supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage, four to four, with two legislators, Sen. Paul Jabour (D-Providence) and Sen. William Conley (D-East Providence), still undecided in the middle. Most observers consider Jabour to be a “yes” vote, but Conley is a much wilder card. A few of Conley’s former colleagues on the East Providence City Council claim his vote leans towards a “nay,” but Conley himself has stated that he hasn’t made up his mind.

If one or both of these bills pass, they will head to the floor for a vote from the full Senate. If Ciccone’s ballot bill passes, it will head to the House of Representatives, where it has an uncertain future at best. If Nesselbush’s bill passes, however, it will be signed by Gov. Lincoln Chafee, and Rhode Island will become the last state in New England to fully legalize same-sex marriage.


photo by Jim Bowen: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamiedfw/2178973951/