A House Judiciary Committee hearing kicked off Tuesday with testimony from the lead sponsor of a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, state Representative Art Handy (D-Cranston). He said it was the eleventh time he has introduced such legislation, but wasn't sure precisely how long similar bills have been filed. Handy said he thought the first was 18 years ago, but his point was really that the time has long since come to grant marriage rights to same-sex couples in Rhode Island.
The House Judiciary hearing in Room 313 began with all the familiarity of a ritual: a group of African-American and Latino clergymen held a lobby just before in the Statehouse rotunda, asserting the state can't alter a sacred relationship created by God. Scores of same-sex marriage opponents and supporters packed Room 313 even before the hearing began, their enthusiasm not lessened in the least by how the Judiciary Committee won't vote on Handy's bill until next week at the earliest.
The setting of Room 313 was all the more fraught since that's where the Senate Judiciary Committee -- at some point -- will take up a vote on some kind of same-sex marriage legislation.
But Tuesday's hearing got an early jolt of excitement with the presence of Governor Lincoln Chafee and state Treasurer Gina Raimondo (joined by her husband, Andy Moffit) as part of the first four witnesses. The other two were Handy and openly gay Representative Frank Ferri (D-Warwick), who was characteristically a bit anxious in making the point that gays and lesbians are, uh, just like everyday people.
Raimondo praised the value of marriage, saying she was speaking mostly as a wife and mother of two children. She said all Rhode Islanders should have the same legal rights.
Opponents fired back.
Jennifer Roback Morse, president of the Ruth Institute, a project of the anti-same sex marriage National Organization for Marriage, recalled visiting the Statehouse in 2011 to speak against a civil union bill that became law. She railed against what she called an overreaching state government bent on denying gender differences:
"If normalizing homosexual activity were going to make your happy, it would have done so long ago. You would not be so desperate today for affirmation from strangers. And if any of you come to realize the Sexual Revolution has been one empty promise after another, we will embrace you."
The Reverend Bernard Healey, the man on Smith Hill for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, highlighted a note sounded by other speakers, including state Representative Arthur "Doc" Corvese: that same-sex marriage will infringe on the religious freedom of others. Healey said that if marriage is redefined in civil law ...
"Without proper conscience protections, individuals and religious organizations -- regardless of deeply held beliefs -- will be compelled to treat same-sex unions as the equivalent of marriage in their lives, ministries and operations."
Regular people joined in, speaking for and against same-sex marriage, as the hearing stretched into the evening.
In a sign of the shifting politics of the issue, former RI GOP chairman Giovanni Cicione joined state Democratic chairman Ed Pacheco in offering support for what proponents call marriage equality. Cicione became GOP chair with support from former governor Don Carcieri -- no friend of same-sex marriage -- and he worked on the unsuccessful campaign last year of CD1 Republican Brendan Doherty, who backed civil unions, but not full marriage rights for gays and lesbians.
Yet the issue remains polarizing enough that opponents were able to mobilize a turnout by hundreds of like-minded people, many of them still waiting to clear Statehouse security as the House Judiciary hearing progressed into the night.
Still, for all the impassioned and sharply opposing messages, this tableaux was just the first new step in a journey that could stretch toward the end of the legislative session.
House passage of Handy's bill will be historic, but not surprising, considering the strong support it now has from Speaker Gordon Fox.
Yet it's what happens after that in the Senate that remains murky and unknown -- unlike the familiar pageantry of kicking off yet another push for same-sex marriage legislation.