The RI Gay Marriage Debate

Aug 2, 2012

Rhode Island has been the stage for contentious debate over same-sex marriage. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says the political landscape is shifting in favor of marriage equality.

The gay marriage debate rages across the country, from the federal courts and state houses to the frialators of the Chick-fil-A fast food empire. It’s been more than a year since the Democrats who control the Rhode Island General Assembly approved a same-sex marriage compromise that pleased no one. Lawmakers voted to allow civil unions, but refused to vote on whether gay couples deserve the same marriage rights as heterosexuals.

This didn’t come as a surprise: There are few profiles in courage serving under the capitol dome. The ancient order dictates that legislative leaders protect their members from doing what the voters sent them to Smith Hill for: to cast votes on tough issues.

The civil union measure appeared to have been an artful compromise, a middle of-the-road attempt to balance the interests of same-sex couples seeking legal recognition for their unions with traditionalists, particularly in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, who asserted that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

Sometimes when one walks down the middle of the street in politics, he or she gets hit by both sides. This is precisely what happened with civil unions.

Proponents of full-fledged marriage equality decried the compromise, saying it made them second-class citizens. As New Englanders what other conclusion could they draw?  Our neighboring states of Connecticut and Massachusetts both have full marriage equality, as do two other states in the region, New Hampshire and Vermont.

On the other side, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin said the legal acceptance of civil unions involves “a social experiment that promotes an immoral lifestyle, is a mockery of the institution of marriage as designed by God, undermines the well-being of our families, and poses a threat to religious liberty.’’

What has changed in a year? Well, public opinion is moving rapidly in favor of full marriage equality, especially among Democrats. President Barack Obama has become the first president to support gay marriage and the Democratic National Convention that meets later this summer is poised to approve a platform plank supporting marriage equality.  With Sen. Jack Reed’s evolution on the issue over the past year, the entire RI Washington delegation now supports gay marriage.

And a new public opinion survey by PEW Research shows that nearly two thirds of Democrats nationwide support marriage equality. Among all voters, marriage equality is favored by 48 percent with 44 percent against.

House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, who is openly gay, vows to bring full marriage rights for gays to a floor vote when the new Assembly convenes in January. That would leave state Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, and her  Democratic caucus as the primary roadblock to full marriage equality.

Governor Lincoln Chafee is firmly in favor of extending marriage equality to gays. He often talks about this issue in terms of economic development. It may be time to give him some credit. Gay marriage would be an obvious boost for the restaurant, hotel and catering business in such wedding locales as Newport and Providence.

On a more existential level,  it would proclaim to the world that Rhode Island is a tolerant place, willing to grasp on to a 21st century economy that welcomes everyone with talent to be part of our state. Is it a coincidence that the nation’s most tolerant cities, including San Francisco and Boston, have strong job markets that attract the educated young?

While Chick-fil-A management’s anti gay marriage stance soaks up media coverage, has anyone noticed the roster of   blue-chip American corporations that are supporting the gay marriage side of a referendum in Washington state? The list includes founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and companies like Starbucks and Nike.

General Mills, the giant cereal producer, has supported a campaign in Minnesota for gay marriage. “We believe a diverse, inclusive culture produces a stronger more engaged workforce,’’ said Ken Charles, a General Mills vice president, in a recent blog post. “Inclusive communities are more economically successful as well.’’

Any marriage equality law should be written to ensure that no church would be forced to join any couple in gay marriage.

Yet  this issue, too,  is largely a red herring. Has anyone noticed any churches closing because of gay unions in the nearby states that have adopted marriage equality?  Roman Catholics and conservative Christians still explore the grand mystery of  Christ’s divinity and teachings in houses of worship from Martha’s Vineyard to Williamstown and from Thompson to Fairfield.

Rhode Island’s business community is always saying that we need to keep our tax rates and regulatory regimes in  line with our Massachusetts and Connecticut neighbors. Why should we do any less for our gay neighbors who seek nothing more than the legal sanction and state imprimatur for rights we already enjoy?

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45. You can also follow his political commentary and reporting at the `On Politics’ blog at