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New push for gay marriage in R.I.

Governor backs refiling of bills

By Michelle R. Smith
Associated Press / January 7, 2011

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PROVIDENCE — Two days after Governor Lincoln Chafee called on legislators to swiftly legalize same-sex marriage, a pair of lawmakers say they will introduce bills to do just that.

Representative Art Handy, Democrat of Cranston, and Senator Rhoda Perry, Democrat of Providence, said yesterday that they would reintroduce bills to legalize same-sex marriage. The bills died last year in the House and Senate.

The legislation has been introduced several times in recent years, but failed as it faced opposition from Governor Donald L. Carcieri, a Republican, and previous legislative leaders. Democrat Gordon Fox, who is openly gay and a cosponsor of the bill, became House speaker last year.

“I think the fact that we have a governor that’s enthusiastic about the legislation makes a huge difference,’’ Handy said.

Perry said that in previous years, she has only been able to round up two or three cosponsors for her bill, but she has seven this year.

In the House, Handy said he had lined up at least 27 cosponsors. There are 75 members of the House and 38 members of the Senate.

Chafee, a former Republican US senator who became an independent in 2007 and was sworn in as governor Tuesday, has been a longtime supporter of legalizing same-sex marriage.

He said during his inaugural address that he hoped Rhode Island would “catch up to her New England neighbors’’ on the issue.

Such unions are legal in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire, although the Legislature there, now controlled by Republicans, plans to consider repeal.

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, a Democrat, personally opposes gay marriage, but when asked yesterday whether she would block such a bill, her spokesman, Greg Pare, said she would not.

“As with any bill, it would go through the normal committee process,’’ he said.

Perry said a key question in the Senate is who will be on the Judiciary Committee. Four members of that committee did not return this year, and committee assignments have not yet been made. The legislation must pass through that committee to get to a floor vote, where it can pass with a simple majority.

Kathy Kushnir, executive director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, a group that advocates legalization of same-sex marriage, said their cause had been “frozen out’’ under Carcieri and called it a great thing for the state that the new governor supports legalizing gay marriage. She said they had spoken with Paiva Weed about the issue.

“We are confident that she takes this issue seriously,’’ she said. “We are hopeful that she will not stand in the way of this legislation.’’

Kushnir said she hoped for a hearing in the House this month.

Chris Plante, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, Rhode Island, which opposes legalizing same-sex marriage, asked why lawmakers are taking the unusual step of introducing legislation so early in the session.

He said they were trying to “force it down Rhode Islanders’ throats’’ and called instead for a ballot initiative that asks voters to decide. That alternative is unpalatable to many supporters of same-sex marriage, who say it is a civil rights issue and should not be subject to a popular vote.

But Plante said, “They don’t want it to go to the people because they don’t have the numbers.’’

He also said that even with Fox behind it in the House, it would not be an easy road there for supporters of the bill.

“On a floor vote, when our assembly men and women have to say yea or nay, I think the numbers are a lot closer,’’ he said.