Rhode Island

R.I. state Senate schedules hearing on marriage equality bill


PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The debate over same-sex marriage in Rhode Island is poised to heat up once again after the state Senate on Thursday scheduled a key legislative hearing and opponents pitched a new proposal to place the contentious question on next year’s ballot.

Next week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on legislation to allow gays and lesbians to marry is likely to attract hundreds of supporters and detractors.

Rhode Island is currently the only New England state without a gay marriage law. The bill has already passed the House but faces its true test in the Senate, where Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed has been a long-standing opponent.

Thursday’s hearing will be the first step in getting the bill to a Senate vote. The committee has not yet scheduled a vote to forward the bill; it could be weeks or months before one is held.

The committee will also review new legislation filed this week by gay marriage opponent Sen. Frank Ciccone that would seek to place the question of allowing gay marriage on the 2014 ballot. Ciccone’s proposed referendum language would allow religious leaders to refuse to perform same-sex weddings and say small businesses like caterers and florists could also decline to provide services to a gay wedding.

The referendum idea won support from the leader of Providence’s Roman Catholic Diocese, Bishop Thomas Tobin, who said citizens have a right to vote on gay marriage.

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“We will continue to vigorously oppose efforts to redefine the institution of marriage in Rhode Island,” Tobin said in a statement. “Nevertheless, the legislation introduced by Sen. Ciccone presents an eminently reasonable approach to this divisive issue.”

But gay marriage supporters like Gov. Lincoln Chafee and House Speaker Gordon Fox have criticized efforts to place the question before voters, saying what they consider a civil rights issue shouldn’t be put to a public vote.

“This is a question that should be taken up by the General Assembly, whose members were sent to the Statehouse to represent their constituents and the people of Rhode Island,” Chafee said. “Just as the House overwhelming passed the marriage equality bill in January, the Senate should take an up or down vote on this critical issue.”

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