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Standing-room only at RI gay marriage hearing

by David Klepper

Associated Press

Friday March 11, 2011

Tempers flared and voices rose Thursday night as Rhode Island state lawmakers held a hearing on legislation to make the state the sixth to legalize gay marriage.

Chairs in the Senate committee room filled up hours early. Opponents and supporters lined hallways outside with capitol police officers standing by. Opponents of gay marriage standing outside had to be quieted after loudly chanting "one man, one woman."

"Marriage between one man and one woman is more sacred than anything," said Roy Gustafson, a Warwick auto body technician who took time off work to protest the legislation. "We're being bullied into this by states like Massachusetts. Rhode Island should stand up and say we're not going to do it."

Same-sex marriage is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia.

Rhode Island lawmakers have debated gay marriage for years. Supporters like their chances this year following the election of Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent who supports gay marriage. Former Gov. Donald Carcieri, a Republican, was an opponent.

Patricia Baker told senators she hopes to see gay marriage in Rhode Island before she dies. The 54-year-old corrections officer from Johnston has terminal lung cancer and requires an oxygen tank to breathe.

Baker married her wife, Deborah Tevyaw, in Massachusetts five years ago, but because they're lesbians, Tevyaw isn't eligible to receive Baker's social security benefits. As Baker told her story to lawmakers, Tevyaw wiped away tears.

"I worked all my life for those benefits," Baker said. "We own a house. We pay taxes. But they told me my Social Security benefits would go back into the system when I die. How is she going to keep the house?"

As the hearing went late into the night Thursday, a few exchanges between supporters and opponents got heated.

Rep. Frank Ferri, D-Warwick, is openly gay and spoke in favor of the bill. At the end of his remarks he looked at a gay marriage opponent sitting nearby who held a large sign that read "Keep Marriage Holy."

"Why do you care who I love?" Ferri asked the man. "Shame on you. Shame on you that your God is the God that's right and mine isn't. Shame on you for thinking you're more perfect than I am."

The Rhode Island House could vote on its own version of the legislation within a few weeks. House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, is openly gay and a co-sponsor of the bill. He said the Senate may be the chief obstacle to passing the bill. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed opposes the bill.

"The Senate is more of a battleground," he said.

Indeed, a few senators at Thursday's hearing expressed clear opposition.

"We cannot marginalize sin," said Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence. "That's the danger ... I don't hate anyone, but I do believe that marriage is between one man and one woman."

Opponents want lawmakers to put the question to voters. A proposed amendment to the state constitution would define marriage as being between a man and a woman.

"We voted on casinos," said Chris Plante, director of the state chapter of the National Organization for Marriage. "How much more fundamental is marriage?"

The fate of the bill could turn on a provision giving clergy the right to refuse to perform same-sex weddings if they object to gay marriage. Opponents say that doesn't go far enough, and they worry that churches could be forced to host gay weddings, or that religious colleges would be forced to place gay couples in housing for married students.

Supporters are working on amendments designed to win over undecided lawmakers.

"I think it's really, really close," said Sen. Rhoda Perry, D-Providence, one of the sponsors of the Senate's bill. "A lot of people are going to be working hard to change people's minds."

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