PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Gov. Lincoln Chafee joined top labor officials and several religious leaders Monday in launching what they hope is the final push to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry in Rhode Island.
Chafee, Treasurer Gina Raimondo, Rhode Island AFL-CIO President George Nee and others announced the formation of a new coalition — Rhode Islanders United for Marriage — as lawmakers in the General Assembly prepare to take up the contentious issue.
Chafee, an independent, cited the legacy of Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island as a beacon of religious tolerance. He said all couples — straight or otherwise — should be afforded the same rights to wed and urged lawmakers to ‘‘call the roll’’ and vote this year to join the rest of New England in allowing gay marriage.
‘‘It is time to honor and affirm that legacy,’’ Chafee said. ‘‘Call the roll for Roger Williams. Call the roll for history and I'll be happy to sign it.’’
Lawmakers have scheduled a hearing on gay marriage legislation for Tuesday, and the House of Representatives is expected to vote on the measure by month’s end. While supporters say they’re confident they'll have the votes to pass the legislation in the House, the possible stumbling block is the state Senate, led by Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, a gay marriage opponent.
Nine states — including the five other New England states — and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex couples to marry. Legislation to allow gay marriage has been introduced in the General Assembly for more than a decade, but it’s never come to a vote.
Nee said that while his organization has backed gay marriage before, it was important to voice
‘‘From a labor perspective this issue is a human rights issue, a civil rights issue,’’ Nee said. ‘‘This is the time and place, and this is the year this will pass.’’
Opponents of gay marriage said despite the support of Chafee, Nee and others, they believe most Rhode Islanders remain opposed to gay marriage.
‘‘Obviously both sides are claiming to have faith leaders and grassroots organizations behind them, but the majority of Rhode Islanders don’t want marriage redefined,’’ said Christopher Plante, director of the state chapter of the National Organization for Marriage.
Plante predicted that as many as 500 opponents to gay marriage will show up for Tuesday’s legislative hearing.
The new coalition is meant to unify efforts to pass gay marriage and show how widespread the base of support is, according to Ray Sullivan, the coalition’s campaign director. He said the coalition is the broadest organization of gay marriage supporters so far in the nearly two decades that lawmakers have proposed gay marriage legislation.
The coalition hopes the Providence Area Chamber of Commerce may soon join its ranks if the chamber’s board approves a resolution in favor of gay marriage. Providence Mayor Angel Taveras had hoped to attend Monday’s kick-off but had a conflict, according to spokesman David Ortiz. ‘‘He was there in spirit and enthusiastically supports the work of the coalition,’’ he said.
The gay marriage debate continues to divide the state’s religious community. Several ministers spoke in favor of gay marriage at Monday’s event.
‘‘Christ welcomed all to his table,’’ said the Rev. Gene Dyszlewski, chairman of the Rhode Island Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality.
Last week, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin urged lawmakers to drop the legislation, saying gay marriage was ‘‘immoral and unnecessary.’’ And on Monday, a group calling itself the Faith Alliance announced that it would rally at the Statehouse ahead of Tuesday’s hearing.
‘‘Marriage is a sacred covenant between God, man, and woman,’’ said Luis Rodriguez, president of the Hispanic Ministerial Association and co-founder of the Alliance. ‘‘... The Church and God-fearing people have been given the charge to protect and preserve God’s holy institution of marriage.’’