Killilea, Alfred [faculty advisor, Department of Political Science]
Gay Marriage, Politics, Rhode Island
Rhode Island has in many ways become the last battleground in a national state-by-state battle over the legalization of gay marriage. It is the last state in the country to not have a definitive stance on whether or not same-sex marriages should be legal and can be performed within the state’s borders, or should be banned and marriage defined solely as the union of a man and a woman. The state is currently undergoing a substantial swing in public support on gay marriage, moving from just 34% in 2004, to 60% in 2009. This rise in support for legalizing gay marriage has coincided with a decline in adherence to the Catholic faith. Rhode Island, while still the most Catholic state in the country, has seen a substantial drop in the percentage of residents who consider themselves Catholic, from 62% in 1990 to 46% in 2008. The fact that the majority of the public supports same-sex marriage – which flies in the face of Catholic teaching – is in line with Rhode Island’s overwhelmingly liberal voting record.
At the crux of the debate over gay marriage are two issues that can’t be separated from one another. The first is the debate over the nature and scope of the separation between church and state, and the second is the debate over whether or not marriage is a civil right. If the separation of church and state exists to keep each from influencing the other for the benefit of both, then religious dogma can’t be used to justify a public law banning gay marriage. If, as some believe, the separation of church and state was enacted simply to keep government from interfering in religious affairs, then relying on religious teachings is more than acceptable as a reason for defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The civil rights aspect of the debate is equally cut and dry. If marriage is a civil right protected by the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment and affirmed by a series of Supreme Court decisions, it would be illegal to create a second class of citizens who are less equal under the law than others. If, on the other hand, marriage is not a civil right, then it can be said that the government is not required to extend the privilege of marriage eligibility to all of its citizens.
This is an interesting time for the gay marriage debate in Rhode Island, as Governor Carcieri’s second term in office comes to a close and Gordon Fox assumes the reins as Speaker of the House. Carcieri has spent his time in office fighting what he sees as the erosion of marriage, which has been caused in part by same-sex couples. Fox, an openly gay Democrat, is a staunch supporter of gay marriage and stands poised to carry a bill through the house during the next legislative term. The future of this issue lies in this coming November’s gubernatorial election, where three of the leading candidates (General Treasurer Frank Caprio, Former Senator Lincoln Chafee, and Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch) support legalizing same-sex marriage. While the Catholic Church maintains the lion’s share of Rhode Island’s religious population, the tide is turning – and arguably has already turned – in favor of granting full marriage equality to same-sex couples, as public support rises and politicians in the Ocean State rise to the occasion