Sen. Frank A. Ciccone III

Yesterday Providence Journal reported that a hearing date of March 21 has been set for the Rhode Island marriage equality bill (S 38) in the Senate Committee on Judiciary.  The Rhode Island state House passed its version of the marriage bill (H 5015) in late January by an overwhelming majority of 51 to 19.

Also on the May 21 committee hearing agenda is a peculiar “compromise” bill (S 708) filed yesterday by Sen. Frank Ciccone.  The bill would place a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would do several things, including:

  1. Establish marriage in Rhode Island as “a legally recognized union of two (2) people” regardless “of the gender of the parties”.
  2. Repeal the part of the state’s anti-discrimination law that prevents businesses that offer services to the public from discriminating against customers who are hiring those services for the purposes of a marriage ceremony or celebration.

If passed it is likely that Sen. Ciccone’s constitutional amendment would, like California’s Proposition 8, be found unconstitutional since it was clearly designed to remove current legal protections from discrimination for same-sex couples for no other reason than to entertain the anti-gay animus of hypothetical small business owners.

In any case, the bill is likely to be a “compromise” that nobody wants. Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, the coalition backing passage of the marriage equality bill, said of Sen. Ciccone’s proposal, in part:

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.

We agree with Speaker Gordon Fox – there are some issues on which you just don’t ‘punt.’ Members of the General Assembly are elected to lead, and to make important decisions. Calling for a divisive and harmful referendum fight is an abdication of the most basic responsibility of our legislators.

Likewise Gov. Lincoln Chafee posted a strong response in opposition to the proposed amendment, saying:

Since my time as a state delegate to the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention of 1986, I have been consistent in my view that in a representative democracy lawmakers have the responsibility to make decisions on matters both monumental and routine.

This is a question that should be taken up by the General Assembly, whose members were sent to the State House to represent their constituents and the people of Rhode Island – a majority of whom support marriage equality. Just as the House overwhelming passed the marriage equality bill in January, the Senate should take an up or down vote on this critical issue.

Although marriage equality opponents National Organization for Marriage in Rhode Island have yet to release a statement about Sen. Ciccone’s bill and weren’t answering their phones this morning, it is unlikely that an organization dedicated to preventing civil marriage for same-sex couples would want to see a guarantee of marriage equality enshrined into the state constitution.

Like Sen. Ciccone’s earlier proposed anti-gay constitutional amendment, this bill is a non-starter.