Rhode Island: New England's 'Last Stand' for Marriage

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Rhode Island is small at just 48 by 37 miles, but it packs a scenic punch with 100 beaches, historic mansions and the clear clam chowder that you can only find there.

But look beyond the surface and you will find a major spiritual and political battle over the fate of marriage. 

The tiniest state in the union has become a focal point in the national debate. Little Rhode Island is holding out as five of the six New England states have now legalized same-sex marriage.

National Debate

Dr. Marion Orr, director of Brown University's Taubman Center for Public Policy, said Rhode Island could play a key role nationally if it passes a gay marriage bill. 

"If you have it happen here you would have a lock, if you will, in this region around the issue of same-sex marriage," he said.

Late last year, the Boston-based group Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) announced plans to take the remaining four New England states. 

Previously, GLAD had worked to legalize same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Many political observers were then surprised this spring when gay marriage fast-tracked through Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire. 

"I think it's about the domino effect," Democratic State Rep. Jon Brien, who opposes gay marriage, said. "I think they're trying to topple New England."

But in an exclusive interview with CBN News, ardent marriage supporter Gov. Donald Carcieri rejects the notion that his state now stands alone in resisting gay marriage. 

"I don't view us as isolated," he said. "I view us, frankly right now, as where most of the nation is." 

Carcieri sees Rhode Island in line with the 30 other states that have passed traditional marriage amendments and said no to gay marriage.

Carcieri is Catholic and has supported traditional marriage since he took office in 2003. He is one of a group of three that many credit for keeping gay marriage at bay in the Ocean State. 

Sphere of Influence

House Speaker William Murphy and Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin join him in forming a sphere of influence that so far has proved unbeatable.
    
Carcieri's opposition to gay marriage provides the road block or "the buck-stops-here" line of defense.
    
"We have a Republican governor who's made it very clear that he would veto and oppose any same-sex marriage law," Orr said.

House Speaker Murphy opposes same-sex marriage as a Catholic and makes sure the legislation never gets to Carcieri's desk. 

Gay rights supporters have introduced marriage bills in the statehouse every year since 1997 but not one has made it out of committee.
   
Chris Plante is executive director for the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Marriage. 

"The Speaker of the House, he really is the most powerful person in Rhode Island. The House controls the financial aspect of things and with his personal opposition to same-sex marriage he's been able to use his position to control the legislation," Plante said explaining Murphy's role.

Spiritual Aspect

Bishop Tobin serves as spiritual leader for Murphy, Carcieri and about 45 percent of Rhode Island. On the last Inauguration Day, every statewide elected official began the morning with a special Mass at the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, celebrated by Bishop Tobin.

Tobin works closely with Father Bernard Healey, the lobbyist for the Diocese of Providence. This combination of hand-on political work plus the church's influence in a heavily Catholic state gives Tobin significant clout. And he embraces it.

"It's the prophetic role of the church I think to bring a vision of faith, a spiritual vision into these very public issues," he said.

But in an interview with CBN News, both Tobin and Carcieri indicated they expect mounting pressure as gay activists target Rhode Island as their last New England battleground.

"I'm sure we will become the focus," Carcieri said.

"They're certainly at our gates, at our door," Tobin said. "Sometimes I feel like we're at the Alamo."

Political Challenge

The political challenge is this: Carcieri finishes his second and final term in January 2011. And so far, potential candidates appear either neutral or supportive of gay marriage. Without a threat of veto, pro-gay lawmakers think they have enough votes to pass a marriage bill.

"If there was a governor who was more neutral or supportive, yes, I believe it would be a very strong possibility," Sen. Chuck Levesque, D-R.I., said.
    
Already, the out-of-state dollars are flowing in. Denver-based gay activist Tim Gill has given several $1,000 checks to Attorney General Patrick Lynch. 

Lynch supports gay rights and recently announced he will run for governor. 

Gill also has given funds to Democratic State Rep. Frank Ferri, a sponsor of gay marriage legislation.

Final Say
    
But if Carcieri has his way, Rhode Islanders will have the final say. He would like lawmakers to approve a bill that would allow a marriage amendment vote.
    
"Let the people decide," he said. "I have my own view personally but I think that's the right way to deal with it. If the people of the state decide they want to define marriage as between same gender persons, so be it."
    
Brien is sponsoring marriage amendment legislation.  

"Every year we spend a large amount of time debating this issue," he said. "It's getting more and more contentious and if we just put it to a vote, everyone knows where the people of Rhode Island stand. Then it will be over with."

Just where the people stand is perhaps the ultimate question. With the largest percentage of Catholics in any state, many believe there is widespread opposition to gay marriage.
   
But the Ocean State is also known for its liberalism. In short, Tobin has his work cut out for him.
  
"Many people in Rhode Island, including Catholics, don't reflect the position of the Church on this issue," Tobin said. "What I'm trying to do is to rally the troops to help them understand what the teaching is, why it's so important and why they have to be involved in this issue."

*Originally published June 18, 2009

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