COMMENTARY: A compromise on gay marriage

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – It's trite to say that compromise is the heart of American democracy. But that doesn't make it any less true.

Compromise is the reason that Americans haven't changed governments with guns in the streets since the Civil War. As Rhode Island considers the emotionally fraught issue of gay marriage, this spirit of compromise ought to be paramount.

As is often the case, the House Judiciary Committee hearing shed more heat than light. Statements of questionable veracity were made by both sides. One example by supporters of gay marriage is that equal rights issues are never addressed by referendum. Well in the 1980s, Rhode Islanders voted on a state Constitutional Amendment that would have banned abortion. It went down to a crushing defeat.

And some opponents of same-sex unions would have us believe that no American courts have found a legal basis for supporting gay marriage. But state Supreme Courts in Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticut, California and Vermont have clearly stated that bans on gay marriage violate equal protection or liberty principles of their state constitutions. Opponents also assert that marriages are designed to be between a man and woman for the sanctity of procreation.

Yet, a straight octogenarian couple in a nursing home can get married, a coupling that surely will not produce children. Gay people have no such rights.

While the Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence is vehemently against gay unions, other Christian denominations, including Unitarians and Congregationalists, support them.

Vermont recognized gay civil unions in 2000 and moved to full marriage rights in 2009. Massachusetts has had gay marriage since 2004. No Catholic church in either state has been barred from teaching Adam and Eve or forced to marry Adam and Steve.

In the recent past, the roadblock to marriage equality was Republican Gov. Don Carcieri, he of the Red State social issue views. Now, with gay marriage supporter Linc Chafee as governor, the ball is clearly in the Democratic General Assembly's court.

In the House, Speaker Gordon Fox, who is openly gay, supports same-sex marriage. The House probably has the votes to pass a bill, but it won't be easy and the emotion it would stir up would inevitably affect other issues, including such important business as the state budget.

Across the capitol's marble hall in the Senate, the gay marriage initiative is problematic. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed of Newport is against gay marriage but may be open to a civil union bill. This isn't an easy issue for her either way; the Newport side of her district is heavily Roman Catholic but her Jamestown voters are social liberals who have elected an openly gay state representative, Democrat Deborah Ruggiero.

So the best solution to this dilemma is probably a compromise that will make neither side completely happy, but will accomplish the goal of giving gay couples the same legal rights as heterosexuals.

For now, the marriage equality supporters should consider backing away from using the term marriage and settle for a civil union law that gives gay couples precisely the same legal protections as straight families. And the opponents of gay marriage ought to understand that legal recognition of same-sex marriages will promote the family stability and personal responsibility they so fervently profess to believe in.

This is not a fair deal for gay couples, but politics is always, always the art of the possible. And this is a compromise that, for now, ought to win approval and extend Rhode Island's grand tradition of tolerance to our gay friends and neighbors.

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