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RI Senate panel hears gay marriage debate

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Hundreds of people wearing red in support of same-sex marriage filled the State House with song and cheers Thursday as lawmakers reviewed legislation that would end Rhode Island's distinction as the only New England state that doesn't allow same-sex couples to wed.

The pivotal hearing in the state's Senate Judiciary Committee comes as gay marriage picks up momentum around the nation. While a final vote could still be months away, supporters in this heavily Catholic state say they sense Rhode Island could soon join nine other states and the District of Columbia in allowing same-sex marriage.

Lawmakers in the cramped committee room heard testimony Thursday from lawyers, religious leaders and private citizens, while hundreds of supporters sang and cheered in the Statehouse rotunda. They stood just feet from opponents who held signs urging lawmakers to vote down the proposal. The demonstrations were loud but orderly.

Some 650 people signed up to speak at the hearing.

Christopher Utter and his partner of 20 years, Stephen Pompei, arrived seven hours before the meeting began to make sure they got seats.

"We thought about getting married in Massachusetts, but we wanted to do it here," said Utter, of Providence. "It's going to be close in the Senate, but we're very hopeful."

Opponents called on lawmakers to reject the legislation, or at least put the question of gay marriage on the ballot and to a popular vote in November 2014. Opponents said gay marriage would force religious charities and schools to change employment benefit policies and set off a social experiment with unknown consequences.

"What we're being asked here in Rhode Island and throughout the country is to radically redefine the definition of marriage," said attorney Joseph Cavanagh, a member of the National Organization for Marriage-Rhode Island. "The people should decide this."

Dogma and religious liberty factored heavily in the often emotional debate. Gay marriage supporters said the state shouldn't write marriage laws based on religious ideology, while opponents argued that a same-sex marriage law would force their religions to recognize something that violates their beliefs. Several speakers on both sides attempted to enlist the legacy of Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island as a haven for those persecuted for their religious views.

"The voices of the founders of Rhode Island echo through the halls of this building," said pastor Ernie Robillard, who said gay marriage was a violation of Christian tenets. "Reaffirm the teachings of God."

The two sides also sparred over gay marriage's legal implications. The Rev. Bernard Healey, a lobbyist for Providence's Roman Catholic Diocese, said religious charities and schools could be forced to extend employment benefits to the gay spouses of workers if the law is changed.

But several representatives from organized labor argued that thousands of gays are denied health coverage and benefits relating to child custody, inheritance and medical decision-making because they can't marry their partner.

"Unfortunately, Rhode Island remains an island in our region," said Meredith Sidoti, a benefits representative with the United Auto Workers. "Rhode Islanders must have the same rights, benefits and protections that those in other states have."

The bill easily passed the House in January, but its fate in the Senate is uncertain, and a final Senate vote could still be a few months away. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, is a notable gay marriage opponent.

Nationally and in Rhode Island, however, momentum seems to favor supporters. Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are the latest national political figures to announce support for same-sex marriage. On Thursday, the American Academy of Pediatrics did the same.

In Rhode Island, three state senators recently removed their names from the bill to place the question on the ballot -- a proposal gay marriage supporters dislike, partly because they say it amounts to giving the popular majority the power to say which selected groups enjoy basic rights.

The referendum, if passed, would allow religious leaders to refuse to perform same-sex weddings and small businesses, such as florists or caterers, could decline to provide services to a gay wedding.

Lawmakers passed civil unions for gay couples two years ago after it became apparent same-sex marriage wouldn't pass. But this year, House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is gay, vowed to make it a priority. The bill passed easily in the House and has the support of Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent.

The bill states that churches and other religious institutions may set their own rules on who is eligible to marry within their faith and specifies that no religious leader can be forced to officiate at any marriage ceremony. While ministers already cannot be forced to marry anyone, the exemption helped smooth the bill's passage in the House.

It remains to be seen if that will be enough to win over the Senate.

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