Equality across New England?

January 29, 2013

Greg Morse and Paul Hubbard report on Rhode Island's step toward equal marriage.

RHODE ISLAND is finally making progress toward becoming the last state in New England, and the tenth nationally, to enact full marriage equality.

After 11 years, marriage equality was approved out of committee and brought to the floor of the full House for a vote. On the evening of January 23, the Rhode Island House voted 51-19 in favor of marriage equality.

Two years ago, a very inadequate "civil unions" bill passed the state legislature. Many in the LGBT community were angered, viewing civil unions as a half-measure at best. Many also became convinced that, for the indeterminate future, the question was now settled in the state.

The 2012 elections seem to have changed that. Across the country, voters showed strong support for marriage equality and women's rights. Approval of same-sex marriage in Washington, Maine and Maryland--and the rejection of an anti-gay marriage ballot initiative in Minnesota--brought national pressure to bear on Rhode Island legislators. Adding to the momentum, New Jersey, Illinois and Minnesota will reportedly take up marriage equality in their state legislatures in the near future.

Rhode Islanders rally for marriage equality
Rhode Islanders rally for marriage equality

However, the fate of marriage equality remains uncertain in the Rhode Island state Senate. Senate President Theresa Paiva Weed had to be pressured to agree to bring an up-or-down vote on the measure in the Senate and has made it clear she intends to vote against equality. The date for the vote has not been set yet.

Despite Rhode Island's legislature being controlled by Democrats (there are only 11 Republicans in both chambers), when it comes to equality, the state has lagged behind its neighbors. Current Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts support marriage equality, however, and Chafee has pledged to sign a same-sex marriage bill into law when it reaches his desk. Chafee has also indicated he would veto any bill brought from the legislature that would leave the question up to voters in a special election.

A great deal of pressure against marriage equality, however, is coming from right-wing National Organization for Marriage founder Christopher Plant and the Catholic Church. They lack public support. Recent polls show a solid majority of Rhode Islanders is in favor of full marriage equality.

As the past 11 years have shown, the extension of civil rights in Rhode Island can't be guaranteed if left up to the legislature. While some mainstream LGBT groups in Rhode Island have focused on lobbying the legislature for a vote in favor of marriage equality. But more effective will be grassroots pressure--including mass rallies and protest--to demand our rights.

Likewise, more pressure is needed on the national front to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act and force Obama to sign an executive order banning employment discrimination of LGBT people in the federal jobs. In 29 states, it remains legal to fire an employee because of their sexual orientation--a reminder of how much more work needs to be done in the fight for full LGBT equality.

Nationally, there is now majority support for marriage equality. We need to continue the struggle to give voice to all aspects of civil rights and equality for the LGBT community.

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