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MERI: Same-Sex Couples Will Legally Marry in R.I. Within Two Years

by Joe Siegel
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Tuesday Dec 20, 2011
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Will same-sex couples be able to legally marry in the Ocean State in 2012?

Marriage Equality Rhode Island will continue their efforts to pass a marriage equality bill when the state’s General Assembly reconvenes next month. Ray Sullivan, campaign director for MERI, told EDGE he expects marriage equality will come to the Ocean State within an 18-month to 2-year timeframe.

"It’s an issue of fundamental fairness and equality," he said.

A marriage equality bill was introduced earlier this year in the House, but gay Speaker Gordon Fox withdrew it in April after he said there were not enough votes for it to pass. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Newport) opposes marriage for same-sex couples.

Fox supported a civil unions bill that lawmakers passed in late June. Governor Lincoln Chafee signed the measure into law last July.

Sullivan promises a "robust" legislative agenda that includes the repeal of the Corvese amendment attached to the civil union law that state Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence) introduced. The amendment allows religiously-affiliated hospitals, schools and other institutions to ignore the legal standing of a civil union spouse.

The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has condemned the civil unions law, calling it "a complete bust" because it contains broad religious exemptions that undermine "the unions’ value, the availability of marriage equality in all the surrounding states, and 12 years of anticipation for full marriage equality."

Only 39 same-sex couples in the Ocean State have obtained civil unions in the six months the law has been legal.

The General Assembly passed a "discriminatory law which treats same-sex couples as second-class citizens," said Sullivan, noting the Corvese amendment was "dangerous and scary." Not only that, but the civil union law affects same-sex couples who obtained marriages in neighboring Connecticut or Massachusetts. Those couples who number in the hundreds, remain in legal limbo for now.

Sullivan vows to take up the issue of recognition for those same-sex marriages with the General Assembly. A divorce bill is expected to be introduced, but the state Supreme Court has declined to rule on same-sex marriages-or same-sex divorces for that matter.

MERI Looks Beyond Marriage
MERI also intends to play a "supporting role" in pushing for a bill that would add gender identity and expression to the state’s hate crimes law. MERI staffers have recently testified at the Secretary of State’s office regarding a Voter ID law. Sullivan explained transgender Rhode Islanders would be "adversely impacted and disenfranchised" if they are required to present identification when they go to a polling place because of the gender marker on the document.

Sullivan has his mind focused on the 2012 elections. He has been busy meeting with potential candidates for open seats, while targeting anti-marriage equality legislators for defeat.

"We’re going to take them out," said Sullivan, who further noted that MERI staffers will be canvassing the districts of legislators in an effort to generate support. "We’ll be in (Paiva-Weed’s) district. We’ll be there every day."

Despite opposition from the Catholic Church, Sullivan believes most Catholics support marriage equality and are frustrated with church leadership’s opposition. He described Bishop Thomas Tobin as "out of step" with his fellow Catholics as he noted a broad coalition of religious leaders who have testified in favor of marriage equality at the State House.

Catholics for Equality has also been working to gain support for a marriage equality measure.

Sullivan is not worried about the state chapter of the National Organization for Marriage, which launched a radio and television ad campaign against nuptials for same-sex couples earlier this year. And although Fox had been the target of much derision within the LGBT community for his backing of civil unions over full marriage rights for gays and lesbians, Sullivan believes he still supports marriage equality.

"We’re willing to give (Fox) the benefit of the doubt," he said.

Sullivan acknowledges the battles that lay ahead, but believes marriage equality will eventually come to Rhode Island. "It’s a fight we can absolutely win," he said.

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

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