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Equal rites?

Why has Rhode Island lagged behind the rest of New England on same-sex marriage legislation?
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  April 8, 2009

DETERMINED Cassandra Ormiston is part of a grassroots movement that is unwilling to settle for civil unions. 

New England has made a pretty good case, in recent years, for America's capital of queer. 

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court became the first in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage in 2003. The Connecticut high court, channeling its inner Harvey Milk, followed suit last year.

And just this week, Vermont became the first state in the nation to approve gay marriage outside a courthouse when the state legislature overrode Republican Gov. Jim Douglas's veto of a same-sex nuptials bill.

In New Hampshire, which recognizes civil unions, and Maine, which has a domestic partnership law on the books, the legislatures are taking their own steps toward gay marriage.

But the love-in, as activists are quick to point out, has not spread across the entire region. There is a lone exception. A stubborn holdout.

"Rhode Island," said Kathy J. Kushnir, executive director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, "has turned into an island of inequality." Rhody is, indeed, the only New England state that fails to recognize same-sex unions in some fashion or another. And insiders say gay marriage legislation, which has rattled around the State House since 1997, will probably die again this session.

It is, on some level, hard to figure. Polling suggests solid public support for same-sex marriage. Democrats have long dominated the General Assembly. And the sky, at press time, had not yet fallen in the neighboring states.

So what, exactly, is wrong with Rhode Island?

The simple answer is Donald L. Carcieri. The Republican governor has been a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage since he took office and advocates have been reluctant to press ahead with a certain veto looming.

But with the governor's second term coming to a close, the leading contenders to replace him — former US Senator Lincoln Chafee, an independent, and Treasurer Frank Caprio, Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch, and Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts, all Democrats — are voicing moderate to full-throated support for the cause.

And there is a confidence in the same-sex marriage camp that was unimaginable just a few years ago. Victory, many say, is near — maybe just a year and a few months away.

They may be right. But the gay marriage fight is more complicated than a gubernatorial election. And the outcome is far from certain.

State Representative Joseph A. Trillo, the leading Republican gubernatorial hopeful, is a long shot for chief executive but could pose an obstacle to same-sex marriage should he prevail. And Speaker of the House William J. Murphy and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed have both announced that they oppose gay marriage.

Gay rights advocates, themselves, are debating whether to put off the same-sex marriage fight in favor of a less ambitious push for civil unions. Legal experts say the Rhode Island courts may be less-than-hospitable to a same-sex marriage petition, should the legislative strategy fizzle.

And there is another, less tangible factor at work.

"Rhode Island," said Rev. Bernard A. Healey, the chief lobbyist for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, "is a long way from Vermont."

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Related: A gay day off, Gay marriage debate comes to Maine, The gays can not be stopped!, More more >
  Topics: News Features , U.S. Government, U.S. State Government, Thomas Tobin,  More more >
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