Senate bill in play to subject same-sex marriage to a statewide referendum

Mar 13, 2013

A state Senate bill being filed Wednesday by Senator Frank Ciccone (D-Providence) calls for a statewide referendum to offer an up or down vote on same-sex marriage.

The bill is cosponsored by 10 other senators: Lou DiPalma (D-Middletown0; Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio; William Walaska (D-Warwick); Nicholas Kettle (R-Coventry); James Doyle (D-Pawtucket); Lou Raptakis (D-Coventry); Judiciary Chairman Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick); Frank Lombardi (D-Cranston); Walter Felag (D-Warren); and David Bates (R-Barrington).

Ciccone's bill calls for a statewide vote on the question of whether marriage should be defined in Rhode Island as a legally recognized union of two people. His legislation provides exemptions from participation for religious officials, religiously affiliated organizations, and small businesses.

House Speaker Gordon Fox opposes putting same-sex marriage to a statewide vote.

The pro-same-sex marriage group, Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, reacted with this statement:

Reaffirming its longstanding opposition to a statewide referendum on marriage equality, Rhode Islanders United for Marriage released the following statement today in response to the filing of a bill introduced today by Sen. Frank Ciccone, which seeks to amend the Rhode Island Constitution to include the definition of marriage.

“Fundamental human rights, including the freedom to marry the person we love, don’t belong on the ballot and should not be subjected to a vote of the majority,” said Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage.

“We agree with Speaker Gordon Fox – there are some issues on which you just don’t ‘punt.’ Members of the General Assembly are elected to lead, and to make important decisions. Calling for a divisive and harmful referendum fight is an abdication of the most basic responsibility of our legislators,” added Sullivan.

“In addition, the bill overwhelming passed by the House contains appropriate and commonsense protections for the religious liberty of those faith traditions who choose not allow same-sex couples to marry under the terms of their own dogma. Allowing businesses and institutions to discriminate – by reversing current state anti-discrimination law – against their fellow Rhode Islanders under the guise of religious freedom is both disingenuous and offensive.”  

The protections included of HB5015 have been enthusiastically endorsed and supported by numerous faith leaders, including the Episcopal Bishop of Providence, the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, and the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry.”

Marriage equality is recognized in nine states including the District of Columbia. No other state legislature has ever proactively sought a referendum on the freedom to marry.

Governor Lincoln Chafee offered this statement:

Since my time as a state delegate to the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention of 1986, I have been consistent in my view that in a representative democracy lawmakers have the responsibility to make decisions on matters both monumental and routine.

This is a question that should be taken up by the General Assembly, whose members were sent to the State House to represent their constituents and the people of Rhode Island – a majority of whom support marriage equality. Just as the House overwhelming passed the marriage equality bill in January, the Senate should take an up or down vote on this critical issue.

This post has been updated.

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