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Will the Catholic Church kill gay marriage?

Inside the high-stakes battle over same-sex nuptials in Rhode Island
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  February 23, 2011

KUSHNIR_main
HOPEFUL MERI’s Kathy Kushnir aims to win over undecided legislators.

Rhode Island’s gay marriage moment has finally arrived. And the Catholic Church just might kill it.

The inauguration of Governor Lincoln Chafee and the rise of openly gay Speaker of the House Gordon Fox mean the state is finally positioned to join its New England neighbors in legalizing same-sex nuptials.

But the end game is proving trickier than advocates had hoped.

Proponents always knew they would have to get around Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, the last great obstacle to same-sex marriage on Smith Hill.

But they’ve been caught off guard by the prowess of the church, which has joined with the nation’s leading anti-gay marriage group to mount a surprisingly potent defense of the status quo.

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin is summoning lawmakers to his office; the opposition is bombarding legislators with phone calls; and the State House halls echo with chatter about what it all means for the next election.

Rhode Island’s last great civil rights fight has become an intense, personal, unpredictable parlor game. And it will take some skillful maneuvering to win it.


IN THE HOUSE

The House of Representatives has become a far friendlier place for gay rights advocates since Fox took the reins from his more conservative predecessor, Bill Murphy. And as the Phoenix went to press, same-sex marriage advocates were still confident they would prevail in the chamber.

They hope for a vote in the House Judiciary Committee as soon as next week. And if the bill gets to the floor as expected, advocates predict they will pick up about 40 votes in the 75-member chamber — and maybe more.

But there has been more drama than anticipated.

Talk of the bill dying in the Senate has some in the House nudging Fox to bury it: why force legislators to go on the record on a divisive issue if the measure is destined to fail in the end?

The queasiness has even reached into the upper echelons of the House leadership, where the Speaker’s top lieutenant — Majority Leader Nick Mattiello, a Catholic active in his church — has wavered in his support of the bill.

A break with the boss would not unprecedented; when Fox was majority leader, after all, he parted ways with then-Speaker Murphy on same-sex nuptials. But circumstances were different then.

Fox was openly gay and could hardly be expected to oppose the push. And giving him a pass was a relatively easy decision, since same-sex marriage wasn’t going anywhere with a certain veto from then-Governor Donald Carcieri looming over the legislature.

Today, the bill is actually in play. And if order is to be preserved in the top-down House, loyalty is a must; it was left to Fox’s chief of staff Frank Anzeveno, a holdover from the more conservative Murphy days, to deliver the message to Mattiello.

In the end, observers say, it’s hard to imagine majority leader actually breaking with the Speaker on such a high-profile bill. But his personal struggle has become a symbol of something larger — a potent anxiety hanging over the mushy middle in the House and the Senate.

That anxiety is, in no small part, the work of the Archdiocese of Providence.

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  Topics: News Features , Politics, Public Policy Polling, Doreen Costa,  More more >
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