Rhode Island

R.I. marriage equality bill may hinge on extent of religious exemptions


PROVIDENCE, R.I. — As debate over gay marriage in Rhode Island simmers, lawmakers say the results could turn on an exemption in the bill that allows religious organizations to decide whether they will perform or recognize gay marriages.

The bill, passed by the House, states that religious institutions may set their own rules for who is eligible to marry within their faith and specifies that no religious leader can be forced to officiate at any marriage ceremony.

While ministers already cannot be forced to marry anyone, the exemption helped smooth the bill’s passage in the House.

But same-sex marriage opponents want to go further by inserting a broad religious exemption allowing religious organizations like churches, hospitals and schools — or private businesses — to ignore the law and decide for themselves whether they want to extend benefits and rights to married gay couples.

Such a broad exemption would prevent lawsuits against businesses such as caterers and florists that refuse to provide services at a gay wedding.

Among those opposing the House version of the bill is the Catholic Church, who argues it’s an issue of religious liberty – that no one should be forced to recognize same-sex marriages or extend employment benefits to gay spouses.

They argue that religious schools and charitable organizations like the Knights of Columbus shouldn’t be forced to change employee benefit policies, or rent an event hall to a same-sex couple looking to hold a wedding reception.

“The establishment of same-sex marriage would pose yet another threat to religious freedom,” wrote Bishop Thomas Tobin, the leader of the Providence Diocese, in a column in the state’s Catholic newspaper. “… Religious bodies will be obliged to extend their resources, facilities and benefits to individuals who are living in immoral relationships — contrary to sincerely held religious beliefs.”

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But religious leaders who support the same-sex marriage bill say the existing religious exemption is sufficient, and note that Rhode Island already has a law banning many types of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Two years ago, when it became apparent that gay marriage legislation would fail in the General Assembly, lawmakers passed a civil union law that contained a broad exemption allowing religious organizations to ignore the relationships.

Under the law, religious cemeteries could deny adjoining burial plots to a couple in a civil union, and religious hospitals could refuse to let one partner make a medical decision for another. Fewer than 100 couples have sought a civil union.

Any effort to craft a similar exemption for gay marriage in Rhode Island would in effect be a “poison pill” that causes the legislation to fail with supporters, said Rev. Gene Dyszlewski, chairman of the Rhode Island Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality.

“It’s very clear to me that religious groups are free to practice their religion without any restraint,” he said. “Making the marriage law more complicated doesn’t solve the marriage problem. I find it hurtful that there are religious groups who are asking for permission to discriminate.”

The legislation awaits action in the Senate.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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