The first time Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston) introduced a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, Massachusetts’ Supreme Court hadn’t yet ruled on same-sex marriage and the state’s constitution. That decision was made in 2004, and Handy began introducing legislation in Rhode Island for same-sex marriage in 2003.
Yesterday, Handy planned to introduce a marriage equality bill in the House for the 11th time.
Handy said this session’s bill is “very comparable” to those he has introduced in the past but has language that makes it clearer that religious institutions do not have to marry same-sex couples if they choose not to.
Handy, who has been married to his wife for 16 years, said same-sex marriage is a “justice question” for him. He said on the legal front, it’s important to allow homosexual couples the same rights as heterosexual couples.
“It’s about being there for someone, ideally, for the rest of their lives,” said Handy.
But Christopher Plante, executive director for the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), Rhode Island, said the civil unions law passed in 2011 gives homosexual couples the same rights as married heterosexual couples. What Handy’s bill would do is “redefine marriage,” something that Plante is a staunch opponent of.
Plante said he is “not surprised” that the bill is once again up for discussion at the General Assembly, “but we’ll continue to oppose the redefinition of marriage,” he said. Plante said marriage is between a man and a woman and it should stay that way.
Handy said he understands why some people are uncomfortable with the bill, but is keen to remind heterosexual couples that it will not affect their marriages.
Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Marriage Equality of Rhode Island (MERI), said same-sex marriage advocates are happy to see that the bill is back on the table this session, and hopes that Rhode Island will recognize all “loving, committed” relationships.
“We’re excited there will be more pro-equality legislators in the General Assembly this year than at any point in history,” said Sullivan.
This year, many primary and general election races were hard-fought between candidates who supported marriage equality and those who did not. Handy recalled people telling him at the polls that they were voting for him because of his stance on same-sex marriage.
Rep. Gordon Fox, who was re-elected as Speaker of the House this week, is another advocate of marriage equality, and pledged to bring the same-sex marriage bill to a vote in the House this session, something that has never happened before. Fox is openly gay.
Handy said if all goes according to plan, a vote on the bill could happen before the end of the month. He hopes the House Judiciary Committee will hear the bill as early as next week.
Rhode Island is currently the only state in New England that does not allow same-sex marriages. Handy said even states like New Jersey and Iowa have made progress on the marriage equality front: New Jersey recognizes civil unions and a bill for same-sex marriage passed in the 2012 session before being vetoed by Governor Christie. In Iowa, same-sex marriage is legal. Though Handy said we’re not behind the curve yet, we’re certainly not ahead of it anymore.
Handy said his 11-session struggle to get the bill to a vote has been made easier by several factors. Mainly, a change in public opinion on the issue (a WPRI poll from October showed 56 percent of Rhode Islanders favor same-sex marriage) has helped to get legislative movement. Handy also said that former Governor Donald Carcieri was a roadblock to the passage of marriage equality bills, while Gov. Chafee has been a strong supporter. On a grander scale, Handy points to the re-election of marriage equality supporters like President Barack Obama. Sullivan agreed.
“The most recent election demonstrated that, from the President of the United States to the rank and file legislators, pro-equality officials were resoundingly elected to lead the state and country,” said Sullivan.
Handy said he thinks the state is ready for change, and hopes the legislature will echo that. He said he is “very optimistic” the bill will get enough votes to pass in the House, and is hopeful it will pass in the Senate, too.
The bill has already gotten a great deal of support from Handy’s fellow Representatives. As of press time, he had 38 co-sponsors to the bill, and said he expected to gain one or two more by the end of the day.
“I’ve never even had 30 [sponsors] before,” said Handy. “It was much easier to get them this year.”
Handy said the growing support of the bill is a reflection of the issue’s importance. He said many people mentioned same-sex marriage to him while he was on the campaign trail; all of them, except for one, were supporters.
“More and more people have realized the tides have shifted,” he said.
Handy hopes now that the gears are set in motion, the process will move along swiftly. This session, he just wants to get it done.
“We’ll look back at this and wonder why we made such a big stink out of it,” he said.