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State Lawmakers Debate Marriage Equality Bill

by Joe Siegel
Contributor
Thursday May 3, 2012
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The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday listened to testimony regarding three LGBT rights bills, including one that would allow gays and lesbians to marry in the Ocean State.

Approximately 80 people showed up at the State House in Providence to testify for or against the measures.

Another bill, known as the Equal Religious Protection Act, calls for the repeal of the Corvese amendment attached to the civil unions law that took effect last summer. The amendment that state Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence) introduced allows religiously-affiliated hospitals, schools and other institutions to ignore the legal standing of a civil union spouse.

The third, the Equal Access to Family Court Act, would allow same-sex couples who married out of state to obtain divorces in Rhode Island.

One of the bill’s sponsors, state Rep. Larry Valencia (D-Charlestown,) explained to the committee that "access to the judicial system is a fundamental right." He further described the bill as a "common-sense fix for an absurd situation."

Gay state Rep. Frank Ferri (D-Warwick) spoke against the Corvese amendment and decried marriage equality opponents who referred to it as a "social experiment." He married his husband Ton Caparco in Canada six years ago.

"My social experiment has been going on for 31 years," said Ferri.

Ferri’s testimony prompted state Rep. Doreen Costa (R-Exeter) to call for a vote on the bills on the House floor.

"Either pass it or don’t pass it," said the marriage equality opponent.

Wendy Becker, who married her wife Mary Norton in Massachusetts, described her experiences testifying before the committee in past years.

"I have been called immoral, deviant, a sinner, and worse," she noted. "I want a vote. Gays and lesbians submit themselves to this horrid ritual every year."

Christina Fox, who described herself as a Roman Catholic and a bisexual, said she was "sickened" to know her girlfriend and herself would be treated differently than heterosexual couples.

"Intolerance and hatred based on a person’s sexual orientation is wrong," she said.

Same-sex marriage opponents also had their say.

Barbara Monfils, who told the committee she has two gay brothers, lamented marriage equality opponents being labeled as "intolerant."

"We don’t hate anyone because we stand up for traditional, one-man, one-woman marriage," she said.

The Rev. Bernard Healey of the Providence Archdiocese urged the committee to reject all three bills that he said would undermine religious liberty. He defended the Corvese amendment, saying it "protects" religious-affiliated organizations.

The committee did not vote on any of the three bills, which it held for further study.

Marriage Equality Rhode Island has been leading the fight to secure marriage rights for same-sex couples in the Ocean State for the past eight years. A marriage equality bill has been introduced in the General Assembly every year since 1997, but none of these measures has moved beyond their respective committees for a vote.

A marriage equality bill was introduced last year, but gay Speaker Gordon Fox withdrew it after he said there were not enough votes for it to pass. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Newport) opposes marriage equality. Both chambers are controlled by Democrats.

Fox supported a civil union bill that was subsequently introduced and signed into law by Gov. Lincoln Chafee.

The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said on Wednesday that only 52 couples have obtained civil union licenses in the state-including six in the first three months of this year.

"These latest statistics demonstrate beyond any doubt that the civil union statute is a complete failure," said Steven Brown, the group’s executive director. "If the General Assembly truly cares about ensuring fairness and equality for Rhode Island’s gay and lesbian couples, it will recognize that the time has come for passage of a marriage bill."

Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.

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