PROVIDENCE — With the Senate the acknowledged battleground in the same-sex marriage debate this year, proponents and opponents started lining up at 9 a.m. Thursday for a Judiciary Committee hearing scheduled to start at about 5 p.m. By noon people were sitting on the floor along the wall in one long corridor in the Statehouse and the line already snaked around the corner.
The House already passed its same-sex marriage bill back in January, so the most contentious legislative issue of the last decade will pass or die in the Senate. If it passes there, Gov. Lincoln Chafee, long a supporter of same-sex nuptials, has already promised to sign it into law.
Despite the long build-up to this hearing, with the committee members believed to be equally divided on the issue, the hearing did not disappoint. A long parade of witnesses – the sign-up sheets for those who wanted to speak made a pile well over an inch thick – painted gay marriage as an immutable issue of basic civil rights, a cosmic battle between God and Satan, and just about everything in between.
The hearing was actually on two bills, one, by Pawtucket Sen. Donna Nesselbush, defines marriage as “the legally recognized union of two people” without gender distinctions.
The second measure, introduced by Sen. Frank Ciccone, would allow people to vote on a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as the union of two people irrespective of gender. Ciccone’s measure would also exempt religious and fraternal organizations and small businesses are not required to extend membership or provide goods and services to same-sex couples.
Starting the hearing on an emotional note, Nesselbush said, “of all the bills I will ever sponsor in my career as a senator, this will be the bill that has the most personal meaning and the biggest impact on my life.” She introduced her partner, Kelly Carse, sitting nearby, as “the woman I want to marry.”
That was met with loud boos from Christopher Young, a prominent opponent of same-sex marriage, who was promptly quieted by Chairman Michael McCaffrey, who moved quickly to establish order.
“I have met most of your wives,” Nesselbush said to her mostly male colleagues on the committee, “and the same love you felt way back when you knew you wanted to marry your spouse is the same love I feel for Kelly.
Love, she said, “is the strongest force on earth, stronger than hatred or war, and our truest connection to God.”
Nesselbush said her bill “protects religious institutions and clergy and insures that no faith, no church and no clergy member will ever have to perform a gay marriage if it violates the tenets of their faith.
Addressing Ciccone’s referendum measure, Nesselbush said, “Had the issue of slavery been placed on the ballot in 1865, the voters may have ratified it and had the issue of interracial marriage been placed on the ballot in 1967 (the year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state statutes prohibiting it) the voters may have outlawed it. The human rights of minorities should not be put up for a majority vote.”
“We are at a position in our history where a decision has to be made,” Ciccone said when he introduced his bill. Over the last six years, the issue has been passed from one side (of the General Assembly) to the other.
Ciccone said his measure “was a way I thought would help in bringing both sides together.
He said the movement to legalize same sex marriage “has adopted a cunning political strategy that demands the redefining of marriage as a civil rights movement.”
Sen. Harold Metts, an African-American, a church deacon and a member of the committee balked at the notion of same-sex marriage being painted as a civil right.
“People in my community take exception to the attempts of gay rights activists to hitch their wagon to the civil rights movement,” Metts said. “What I tell people is that I could change my sexual preference tonight if I want to, but I can’t change my color. What people do in the privacy of their bedrooms can never compare to what African-Americans went through with slavery.
“I am puzzled why those who seek tolerance and now acceptance are so intolerant of others’ religious beliefs and rights,” Metts said, adding “there is no ground for compromise.
“As a Christian, I will not be forced into the closet with my beliefs,” Metts said.
Chafee appeared to once again state his well-known support for same-sex marriage.
“Let’s call the roll and get this bill passed this year,” the governor urged.
General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, widely thought to be planning a run for governor against Chafee in 2014, also voiced support.
Raimondo called marrying her husband 11 years ago, “the best decision of my life” and said, “very simply, I believe every Rhode Islander deserves the same civil right that we have.”
“Why is the government interested in marriage?” asked attorney Joseph Cavanaugh, “The answer is because of children. That is why the government is interested in marriage. The government is not interested in emotional and romantic relationships between adults. What we are being asked to do in Rhode Island and throughout this country is to radically change the definition of marriage to be something it isn’t. Marriage has always been, and naturally has to be between a man and a woman because out of that is the possibility of new life – children.
Cavanaugh said the civil unions law, passed in 2011, took care of the issue of benefits for same-sex couples.
Leonard Katzman said Jews believe in the sanctity of marriage and 81 percent of all American Jews support marriage equality. He said Jews are excluded from religious freedom in Rhode Island because same-sex couples “can not stand under the marriage canopy.”
While most speakers were in favor of either Nesselbush’s bill or Ciccone’s, Kara Russo Young said she opposed both.
“Why open the door to let same-sex marriage to possibly go through by the vote?” she asked. “I say just stop it here, there’s no reason to give a chance for it to pass.
“Make no mistake,” she warned, “tonight the soul and the future of Rhode Island is on the line. What they are asking for through this legislation is the state endorsement of sinful behavior. A moral wrong can never be a civil right. When you remove God, society collapses.”
Michael Krzywonos of Pawtucket said the notion of same-sex marriage being a civil right is “preposterous.” He said same-sex marriage will be just the beginning of the re-definition. He said polygamists will argue that “their love can not be confined to just one person. How can you deny multiple marriages if they truly love each other? Then we will begin to test the boundaries of what age is permissible in deciding when two people can enter the contract of marriage.
Injecting humor into the hearing, proponent Wendy Becker told the panel “I have been characterized as an abomination, a sinner, an unnatural parent, blasphemous, cursed, dangerous, Satanic and immoral. And that is just this evening.
“In short, I am who you need to protect marriage from,” she said, adding such a characterization is not true. “What is true, I am the mother of two amazing adopted kids, a college professor, a partner of 25 years.”
“Our family, our relationship will not destroy the fabric of society,” Becker said.