House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is gay, said the legislation has "no realistic chance" of passing the state's General Assembly this year. Fox, a Providence Democrat, said instead he will support new legislation creating civil unions that would offer substantially the same rights given by the state to married couples.
"This is the best we can do right now," he said. "Full marriage will happen. I'm born and bred in Rhode Island. When I do get married it will be in my home state."
The announcement deeply disappointed those who hoped this would be the year the Ocean State joined five other states in recognizing gay marriage. Groups that led the fight for gay marriage said they wouldn't support any measure that falls short of full marriage.
Fox—who became Rhode Island's first Black and first openly gay House speaker in February 2010—cited opposition in the House and Senate from both parties. Democratic Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed is also considered one of the bill's prime obstacles. Weed supports civil unions.
A group of college students demonstrated this afternoon outside Fox's office in hopes of persuading him to allow a House vote on the marriage bill measure. Fox defended his decision to shift strategy to civil unions, reports the Providence Journal.
"I have been in a domestic partnership for 11 years. I have lived it," said the openly gay Providence Democrat to a crowd of 20 mostly college-age protesters. "And I am not stepping back one iota from my belief that marriage equality is what Rhode Island needs. But I have to balance that with what we can achieve now."
He argued that he supports civil unions knowing that he has a commitment from Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed and Governor Chafee that this would pass this session and give Rhode Islanders "real rights now."
Fox explained the strategy shift in a letter to colleagues this afternoon. Read the full text of Speaker Fox's letter AFTER THE JUMP ...
April 27, 2011
Although my personal position on marriage equality has not changed, I have always been a practical person and I believe my pragmatism is one of the reasons why I was elected Speaker of the House.
I recognize that this is a chamber comprised of members who represent very different constituencies, beliefs, and priorities that must be balanced. Based on individual discussions with many of you, I understand how difficult the marriage equality issue has been.
Based on your input, along with the fact that it is now clear to me that there is no realistic chance for passage of the bill in the Senate, I will recommend that the House not move forward with a vote on the marriage equality bill during this legislative session. I will instead support full passage of a civil unions' bill that grants important and long overdue legal rights to same-sex couples in Rhode Island.
I have had conversations with Senate leadership and, unlike the marriage equality bill, I am optimistic that a civil unions' bill can gain passage in both chambers during this legislative session.
The new civil union bill is currently being drafted and will soon be ready for introduction and public inspection. I will be one of the sponsors.
Because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed by Congress in 1996, the federal government does not recognize same sex marriages and therefore federal rights are not granted to same sex couples who get married in states that allow it. For example, same sex partners married in Massachusetts are not granted federal rights such as the right to file joint federal tax returns.
Even with passage of a marriage equality bill such as the one currently pending in our House Judiciary Committee, same sex couples married in Rhode Island would not be given access to those federal rights. However, passage of the civil unions' bill that I will be supporting will grant same sex couples all state rights guaranteed to married couples in Rhode Island. I believe passage of such a measure will be a significant accomplishment in helping to ensure equality to all Rhode Islanders.
As both a long-time supporter of marriage equality and a sponsor of the bill, this is not a decision that I have reached without deep thought, long deliberation, and emotional debate in my own mind and heart.
Throughout my 19 years as a State Representative, I have always worked under the guiding principle that a leader must make a pragmatic decision to forge a path to achieve positive results. With that principle in mind, I am confident that we will quickly obtain the necessary support and votes in both chambers to secure these important and necessary rights for all same-sex couples in Rhode Island.
From the outset of this session, I made a commitment to both the House members and to all our citizens that while I would address the inequalities that exist for same-sex couples in their everyday life, there are other pressing issues that the House must address as well. The passage of our state's budget during these difficult economic times remains paramount.
Today, I publicly renew my commitment to ensuring the granting of important legal rights to partners in committed relationships throughout Rhode Island. I hope for swift passage of a civil unions' bill in the weeks ahead, as well as many other significant pieces of legislation, including our state's challenging budget.
As always, I value your thoughts and input. I will be available should you wish to contact me about this issue or others of concern."
Speaker Gordon Fox