The Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, Gordon Fox, officially conceded today that there is not enough support in the Legislature to pass a marriage equality bill.

House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is gay and is a leading supporter of the gay marriage bill, says that it’s clear the bill won’t overcome opposition in the Senate. Fox, a Providence Democrat, says he’ll instead sponsor civil union legislation giving same-sex couples the same state rights given to married couples.

The announcement deals a major setback to advocates of gay marriage in the Ocean State. They had called civil unions a poor substitute for full marriage. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed’s opposition was seen as a key obstacle to the bill’s passage. In a statement to reporters, she says she supports civil union legislation and is confident it will pass.

Despite polling on the issue that has repeatedly and consistently showed broad-based support for marriage equality in Rhode Island, its Legislature could not find the courage to support what the majority of Rhode Islanders support.

PPP, February 22, 2011:
“Do you favor or oppose allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally?”
Favor: 50%, Oppose: 41%

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, July 22, 2010:
“Do you favor or oppose allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally?”
Favor: 59% Oppose: 31%

Brown University, 5/09:
“Would you support or oppose a law that would allow same-sex couples to get married?”
Support: 60% Oppose: 31%

Instead, in what is becoming a trend, Rhode Island seems likely to join Delaware, Illinois and Hawaii in this year passing ‘everything but marriage’ civil unions legislation. And unless New York State somehow manages to find at least six Republican legislators to vote for marriage equality, the prospect of any state legislature enacting same-sex marriage legislation in 2011, or even 2012, seems dim.

What has seemed inevitable giving polling trends — state-by-state marriage equality — now seems dangerously close for the foreseeable future to shifting into neutral with a strong possibility to move into reverse (New Hampshire).

Here is Speaker Gordon Fox’s letter to his colleagues in the House. Read it and weep.

Dear Colleague:

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.

Sincerely,

Speaker Gordon Fox

This is triply sad.

By not allowing a vote, Rhode Island voters, just as in Maryland, will not know which of their legislators support marriage and equality and which do not.

Furthermore, Speaker Fox is being less than truthful when he argues that DOMA means that a civil unions bill will be equivalent to a marriage equality bill.

Let’s not even consider the reasoning put forth in Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision in Perry v. Schwarzenegger (the Proposition 8 trial) destroying the notion that a civil union is constitutionally equivalent to a marriage. The truth is that should DOMA be repealed, same-sex couples who are married will be entitled to those federal benefits he speaks of, while those who are entered into civil unions will not (at least until Congress says they are). Fox is obviously making the best he can of a shit sandwich. Still, he could at least be honest with his colleagues and his constituents.

Finally, while the LGBT community has been out celebrating a satisfying yet ephemeral victory in getting King & Spaulding to drop the DOMA case (the defense, by a top-ranking lawyer, will go on), Maggie Gallagher, NOM and the Religious Right have just notched up another real victory on their trophy belt.

jpmassar

jpmassar

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