PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage will travel to the Rhode Island Statehouse for what supporters hope is the last legislative hearing before lawmakers vote on whether to join the rest of New England in allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed.
Opponents say they will try to use the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday to turn back the latest attempt to pass gay marriage in the state, or at least convince lawmakers that the question should be put to the voters.
The Judiciary Committee intends to hear from both sides of the gay marriage debate and review alternative legislation that would put the question on the ballot as a referendum.
The proposed referendum — which gay marriage supporters dislike — also would allow religious leaders to refuse to perform same-sex weddings and say small businesses like florists or caterers could decline to provide services to a gay wedding.
It’s likely that hundreds of people on both sides of the debate will show up to speak at the hearing. Lawmakers on the panel are prepared for what’s likely to be a late night.
“I’m hopeful we can have a thoughtful and productive discussion,” said state Sen. Dawson Hodgson (R-North Kingstown), a gay marriage supporter.
The House passed the gay marriage bill in January but both sides predicted the true test would lie in the Senate, where Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Newport), remains a notable opponent. Thursday’s hearing is a necessary first step toward advancing the bill to the Senate floor. The Judiciary Committee has not scheduled a vote.
The bill passed by the House states that churches and other 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 th e bill’s passage in the House.
Nine states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex couples to marry. In Rhode Island, gay couples can enter into civil unions, and independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a gay marriage supporter, has signed an executive order recognizing gay marriages performed in other states.
The hearing is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. EDT.
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