March 22, 2013 at 10:06 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
R.I. Senate committee holds hearing on marriage bills
Rhode Island, Donna Nesselbush, gay news, Washington Blade

Donna Nesselbush

The Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday held a marathon hearing on a bill that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.

“I am your teammate and it’s just not right the way our laws currently discriminate against me in my earnest desire to marry Kelly,” state Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket,) who introduced Senate Bill 38 in the Senate, said during the start of the hearing that lasted more than 12 hours. A member of the audience booed the lawmaker after she spoke about her partner.

Governor Lincoln Chafee stressed the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples would benefit the state’s economy — Rhode Island’s 9.8 percent unemployment rate remains one of the highest in the country.

“We need to grow our economy,” Chafee said. “Now’s the time to end this discrimination in Rhode Island against gays.”

State Treasurer Gina Raimondo referenced her husband and two young children during her testimony in support of the same-sex marriage bill.

“Every Rhode Islander deserves the same civil rights we have,” she said. “Every child deserves the same rights our children have to grow up within the context of a loving married couple.”

State Sen. Dawson Hodgson (R-North Kingstown) referenced former Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman and the more than 100 other Republicans who signed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples in the case that challenges the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8. He also cited former Vice President Dick Cheney and other members of the GOP who back the issue during his testimony.

“The freedom to marry represents the basic conservative values of responsibility and fidelity,” Hodgson said.

Kelly Frederick of the Alliance Defending Freedom said marriage and civil unions for same-sex couples in Massachusetts, D.C. and Illinois “forced” Catholic Charities in the three jurisdictions “out of the adoption business because of their religious beliefs.” Rev. Bernard Healey of St. Luke’s Church in Barrington testified against Senate Bill 38 on behalf of the Diocese of Providence.

“Marriage should not be redefined,” he said. “It radically redefines marriage for everybody in the state.”

The committee heard testimony on the same-sex marriage measure and Senate Bill 708, a measure sponsored by state Sen. Frank Ciccone (D-Providence) that would place a proposed constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman in the state on the 2014 ballot, less than a week before the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in cases that challenge Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act.

Neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut are among the nine states and D.C. that allow same-sex marriage.

Rhode Island’s civil unions law took effect in 2011, but only a few dozen couples have taken advantage of it. Chafee last year signed an executive order that ordered state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other jurisdictions.

Ciccone is among those who spoke in support of SB 708.

“What people do in their bedrooms can never compare to what African Americans went through during slavery,” state Sen. Harold Metts (D-Providence) said as he criticized comparisons between the same-sex marriage movement and the civil rights struggle. “The Bible is clear: marriage is between one man and one woman.”

State Sens. Leonidas Raptakis (D-Coventry) and James Doyle (D-Pawtucket) were among the SB 708 co-sponsors, but they removed their names as supporters earlier this week. Doyle also announced he will vote for the same-sex marriage bill if it reaches the Senate floor.

State Sen. Nicholas Kettle (R-Coventry) on Wednesday announced he too would no longer back Ciccone’s bill.

“Since this bill was introduced, thousands of Rhode Islanders have called their senators and urged them to take a stand against this divisive legislation,” Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, said. “The proposed referendum bill is neither a compromise, nor an ’eminently reasonable’ solution to the question of allowing all Rhode Islanders to marry the person they love.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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