Scott MacKay Commentary
6:13 am
Mon July 4, 2011

A civil step to marriage equality

PROVIDENCE, RI – On Independence Day, Rhode Islanders can celebrate our state's embrace of a first step towards full marriage equality for our gay citizens.

After a tortuous debate, the Rhode Island General Assembly has finally approved legislation that grants our gay citizens the right to civil unions.

Making civil unions legal was a compromise that has made neither side of this emotion-laden issue happy. Proponents of marriage equality see civil unions as a cop-out, particularly for an overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly that has a gay House Speaker in Gordon Fox.

Supporters of same-sex marriage were also upset to see that New York adopted full gay marriage after Governor Andrew Cuomo lobbied hard for approval. As was the case with Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, Cuomo campaigned in support of gay marriage. Unlike Chafee, he fought hard for it after his election.

The opponents of Civil Unions, most prominently Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin, aren't pleased either. Tobin blasted the measure, saying it makes a ``mockery of marriage'' and undermines the ``faith of the church'' and will cause ``scandal and confusion.''

The bishop is entitled to his opinion, of course, but there is nothing in the legislation that bars his church from teaching Adam and Eve or forces it to marry Adam and Steve. Rhode Island's overwhelmingly Catholic lawmakers didn't follow church teaching as they voted for civil unions, but they did refuse to approve full marriage equality, which the bishop lobbied against.

Could it be that a new generation of buffet Catholics pick and choose what church teachings to obey. Maybe they soured on the church hierarchy because of the failure to contain the pedophile priest scandals or because of the bishops' opposition to the national health care plan approved by Congress.

Chafee can be faulted for not being strong enough on an issue he highlighted in his inaugural address. But Rhode Island isn't New York. Sixty-three percent of our state's voters are Catholic, the nation's highest percentage. And we have the sixth highest percentage of citizens over age 65. Bishop Tobin deserves credit for a vigorous lobbying effort at the State House that helped turn the tide against full marriage equality. And the immoveable object this year was Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, the Newport Democrat who refused to support full gay marriage rights. She gets to defend her stance to voters next year.

New England has been in the forefront of the marriage equality movement. Every state in the region, except Maine, has now legalized gay unions.

After a tortuous debate, the Rhode Island General Assembly has finally approved legislation that grants our gay citizens the right to civil unions.And if neither side in Rhode Island got everything they wanted, well, isn't that what democracy is all about?

Approval of civil unions is a solid first step toward full marriage rights. Three of our neighboring states that now have full marriage equality - Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire - started with civil unions. Public opinion surveys on this issue show rapid movement, especially among younger voters, to support for marriage equality.

If the experience of our New England neighbors is relevant it means that in the near future Rhode Island will enact full marriage equality. Has anyone who travels among our cozy corner of the northeast noticed anything different about Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut or New Hampshire since those states enshrined gay marriage into law?

How will heterosexuals be affected by gay civil unions? Here's betting very little, except that you may get more wedding invitations now that your gay friends can legally tie the knot. Have a happy Fourth.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@wrni.org.