The future of marriage equality in RI

PROVIDENCE, RI – Rhode Island is now the only New England state without marriage equality. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says this would change if the business community supports marriage equality.

As gay marriage gains momentum from the Pacific northwest to the shores of Maine, Rhode Island is getting ready for another round of debate at the State House over marriage equality.

This last time the General Assembly considered this issue, in 2011, the marriage equality forces could muster support on Smith Hill for civil unions, but could not convince lawmakers to allow full equality for our gay and lesbian neighbors.

Much has changed since that contentious legislative joust. At the November 6 election, for the first time in American history, voters in three states, redefined marriage by popular vote. Voters in a third state said a resounding no to a Minnesota constitutional amendment restricting marriage to the union of a man and a woman.

The votes in favor of gay unions in Maryland, Washington State and Maine showed that attitudes are rapidly changing in the realm of marriage equality. Before the recent election, voters had rejected gay marriage in 32 separate state referenda.

One element that has changed in the recent state votes was the position of the business community. For many years, business has sat on the sidelines of this debate, even as many companies tacitly backed marriage equality by bestowing domestic partner health care benefits on their gay workers.

Now, business leaders across the country are increasingly voicing their support for marriage equality. The most dramatic evidence recently has come from Washington State, where executives of such business groups and companies as Microsoft, Starbucks, Vulcan, Nike, REI and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce all came out in favor of same-sex unions.

During the Rhode Island General Assembly debate two years ago, organized labor broke with its neutral stance as the state AFL_CIO endorsed marriage equality. Governor Lincoln Chafee has always said that marriage equality is good for business, particularly in an economy where recruiting well-educated creative class workers is a plus for any state.

Yet Chafee, who doesn't have the greatest relationship with the business community, was not able to convince corporate leaders to sign on to marriage equality. Inclusive communities are obviously more successful than those who cling to outmoded ideas of personal relations.

Many of Rhode Island's largest private employers, in business, health care and academia, provide domestic partner benefits for their gay employees. These include Textron, Brown University and the Lifespan Hospital chain.

With Maine's embrace of marriage equality, Rhode Island is now the only New England state without same sex marriage. But opinion in the Ocean State is changing rapidly on this matter.

Rhode Island's congressional delegation supports marriage equality unanimously now that Sen. Jack Reed's position on the issue has evolved.

After the Democratic Party's romp in Assembly elections, the legislature that convenes at the State House on New Years' Day will have almost a dozen new members who favor marriage equality. Governor Chafee is on board and House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, has pledged to hold a gay marriage vote early in the new session.

Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, says her group has not taken a position on marriage equality.

Rhode Island's business community is always saying that we need to keep tax rates and regulatory regimes in line with our New England neighbors, especially Massachusetts and Connecticut.

So isn't it about time that business leaders speak out and insist that our state treat equally gay citizens and workers who seek the benefits, legal clarity and social understanding that most of us already enjoy?

Scott MacKay's commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics' blog at

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