RI's Grassroots Fight For and Against Same-Sex Marriage

Mar 29, 2013

Same-sex marriage supporter Margaret Hughes knocks on a door in Woonsocket
Credit Bess Marine

Legislation that legalizes same-sex marriage in Rhode Island remains under consideration in the state Senate. Supporters want the General Assembly to approve same-sex marriage; opponents are backing a bill with broad exceptions that would make the issue subject to a statewide vote. Exactly when the Senate will vote on these bills remains unclear. Yet both sides are relying on grassroots campaigns to tip the outcome in their favor. These efforts could determine whether Rhode Island changes its status as the only New England state that has not yet legalized same-sex marriage.

On a cold Monday night, 18-year-old volunteer Margaret Hughes is knocking on doors in the Riverside section of East Providence when she winds up on the steps of Marie LaBelle.

“Hi, my name is Margaret,” Hughes says. “I’m with the campaign to win marriage for gay and lesbian couples in Rhode Island. Is that something you support?”

“Absolutely,” responds LaBelle.

“Fantastic. Me, too,” says Hughes. “What makes you a supporter?”

“Well, you know. It’s fair,” says LaBelle. “It’s equal and fair.”

Hughes, a recent Barrington High School graduate, is gay and she wants to get married one day. She’s one of four canvassers knocking on doors for two hours in Riverside this evening for the advocacy group Rhode Islanders United for Marriage. As they talk at front door, Hughes explains to LaBelle how the General Assembly is deciding whether to allow gay and lesbian couples to get married.

“And the thing is,” Hughes says, “your senator, William Conley, is really critical because he’s on the fence about marriage.”

Conley is part of the 10-member Senate Judiciary Committee that poses the first hurdle for the two same-sex marriage bills in the Senate. LaBelle didn’t realize how important he is to the bill’s success, and is more than willing when Hughes whips out a pre-programmed cell phone and asks her to call Conley and leave him a message at his legislative office.

“Senator Conley, my name is Marie LaBelle,” she says. “I live in your district. I urge you to vote yes for the marriage bill recently passed by the House of Representatives. I also ask you to oppose the harmful ballot bill that rolls back the state’s non-discrimination law.”

Rhode Islanders United for Marriage dispatches squads of canvassers like Margaret Hughes to different parts of the state four to five nights a week. It’s been going on for about six weeks. The group has about 30 paid staffers, some with experience in politics and others with same-sex marriage battles under their belts.  The group has the backing of four like-minded out-of-state organizations. The head of Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, Ray Sullivan, says his group is trying to foster a sense of inevitability about same-sex marriage.

“We are rolling out a relentless sense of momentum behind this legislation,” Sullivan says. “Legislators from all over the state continue to hear from their constituents about the importance of understanding why loving and committed couples should be recognized.”

But Senator William Conley of East Providence is keeping his plans private. He says he remains undecided about his vote on same-sex marriage and was guarded in describing the impact of calls he’s gotten urging support or opposition.

“It certainly has given me more to think about it,” Conley says. “It certainly has helped me understand the issue from a deeper perspective than I had before.”

As a sign of progress, Rhode Islanders United’s Sullivan points to how three senators asked for their names to be removed from the bill calling for a statewide referendum on same-sex marriage. One of those senators, Democrat Lou Raptakis of Coventry, used to back the traditional definition of marriage. He now thinks the full Senate should debate the two same-sex marriage bills.

Same-sex opponents protest at the Statehouse earlier this year.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

Advocates call same-sex marriage a civil right, and they say it would be wrong for that kind of issue to be decided through a statewide vote. The head of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Marriage, Christopher Plante, rejects that argument. He spoke while preparing to head to Washington, D.C., for a demonstration earlier this week in support of traditional marriage.

“Marriage is not about civil rights,” Plante says. “Marriage is about uniting the two halves of humanity, male and female, together, to raise the next generation. We regulate marriage for the sole reason that that’s where children are raised.”

Plante is the sole employee of the local chapter of the National Organization for Marriage. But he’s got some influential allies in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence and evangelical pastors who oppose same-sex marriage. Plante says opposition groups are also encouraging Rhode Islanders to contact their lawmakers.

“We’re doing automated calling, a lot of emailing, radio – that type of thing, social media to get the word out,” he says, “and I’ll point a finger – if you’re in Senator Raptakis’ district, make sure you call him.”

The intense feelings around same-sex marriage were clear when the Senate Judiciary Committee held a 12-hour hearing on the issue last week, the longest in recent memory. Crowds protested and hundreds of people spoke passionately on each side of the debate.

It looks like the votes could be there on the Judiciary Committee to move the issue of same-sex marriage to the full Senate. But the committee has yet to schedule a vote on the legislation and if and when it does, no one knows what will happen next. For now, Rhode Island remains the only New England state yet to legalize same-sex marriage.