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Rhode Island Senate committee to consider marriage equality bill next week

Marriage equality

By Jacob Combs

A marriage equality bill that passed the Rhode Island House of Representatives in late January has been scheduled for consideration in the state Senate Judiciary Committee next Thursday, March 21.

During the hearing, the committee will also consider another bill introduced yesterday by state Sen. Frank Ciccone, a Providence Democrat, that seeks to place the law on the 2014 ballot.

Ciccone, who told the Providence Journal the bill arose out of conversations he had with Senate leadership, has written broad legal protections for religious exemptions into his legislation, including language that states that “a refusal by a small business to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods or privileges … [to a same-sex couples] shall not create a civil claim or cause of action or result in any state or local governmental action to penalize, withhold benefits from, or discriminate against the small business.”

LGBT advocates in the state remain firmly opposed to a referendum on the bill.  On Wednesday, Ray Sullivan, the campaign director of Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, said, “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.”

Sullivan also called the push for a referendum vote “an abdication of the most basic responsibility of our legislators.”

Next week’s hearing will include an opportunity for public commentary on both bills which will likely bring out both supporters and opponents of marriage equality, who turned out in strong numbers when the House considered the legislation in January.

Supporters of equal marriage in Rhode Island see the Senate Judiciary Committee as a significant potential obstacle for the marriage equality bill.  In an interview with EqualityOnTrial after the House approved the legislation, House Minority Leader Brian Newberry–the only Republican in the chamber to vote for the bill–said that he believes the bill will pass if brought up on the Senate floor.  The question, of course, is whether it will make it out of the judiciary committee and come up for a floor vote.

Sen. Michael McCaffrey, the chair of the committee, opposes marriage equality.  Of the ten senators on the committee, four are seen as supportive of the bill and four are seen as opposed.  The other two, Sens. Paul Jabour and William Conley, have made conflicting statements on the issue in the past.

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