February 26, Thursday night at the Statehouse, and a third floor corridor overflows with concerned Rhode Islanders. They await a Senate hearing on variations of a gay marriage bill, their stickers encapsulating two distinct ideologies. Theresa Masnik and Sarah Howes both wear one that reads: "Open your heart to equality." The two women stand holding hands, not quite nervous, but visibly invested in the evening's hearing. A committed couple, Masnik and Howes have chosen not to wed in Connecticut or Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is legal, but instead are holding out for Rhode Island.
Elsewhere in the crowd, an infant Ocean-stater sucks on a pacifier as her mothers, Angela Mazaris and Jack Amoureux, alternate cradling duties. The family came to the statehouse after hearing a radio ad sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) that claimed the legalization of gay marriage in Rhode Island would harm children.
"We believe we are an amazing family," Mazaris told the Independent.
Masnik, Howes, Mazaris and Amoreux are all gathered to support the Marriage Equality bill, S0147. If it passes, the bill will broaden the definition of persons eligible to marry to include individuals of the same gender.
Also present in the crowded hallway are supporters of S0136, sponsored by Senator Leo R. Blais, which would explicitly prohibit same-sex marriages in Rhode Island. Wearing stickers from the National Organization for Marriage reading "Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman," James and Ann Flynt described gay marriage as "going against the natural order." James Flynt cites the dissolution of the Roman Empire as the fate of a society that loosens when its adherence to the Ten Commandments falters.
Reverend John R. Teeter, the pastor of Glad Tidings Community Church in Chepachet, Rhode Island, also wears a NOM sticker. Though Teeter believes that marriage is an act between one man and one woman, he "came today to listen to both sides." Teeter said he would support the creation of a new status "entirely unrelated to faith" to recognize the committed relationships of same-sex couples.
"Equality is not taking away the context of marriage based in religious values," Teeter said.
It was 12 years ago that former Representative Michael Pisaturo introduced Rhode Island's first same-sex marriage legislation. Since 1997, there has been a same-sex marriage bill introduced each year by various state legislators.
Rhode Island is in a unique position with regard to marriage equality. The state legally recognizes gay marriages in other states. Same-sex couples in Rhode Island have access to marriage just beyond the border, in both Massachusetts and Connecticut. Some couples have opted to tie the knot out of state.
Dave Bouchard and his husband Emile Bellisle wed on June 8, 2007 in Franklin, Massachusetts. They have been together for over twenty years and have five children between them, three of whom they currently raise together.
"At first we were going to wait to marry in Rhode Island, but we finally decided we would get married as soon as we could. Rhode Island in some way recognizes marriage, which is a good thing, but it isn't enough," Bouchard told the Independent.
Rhode Island is one of only five states without a "Defense of Marriage Act"; there is currently no law in the state defining marriage as an act between one man and one woman.
"It's our commitment to make sure that Rhode Island remains a DOMA-free state. We will fight any attempt to have marriage defined as one man and one woman in the state," said Kathy Kushnir, the executive director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI). A grassroots organization that advocates for equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, MERI officially formed in 2003 out of a coalition of concerned citizens. MERI's agenda includes lobbying Rhode Island legislators, educating the public and electing public officials who support same-sex marriage, with the ultimate goal of securing state-issued marriage licenses for all Rhode Island couples, regardless of gender, by June 2011.
MERI currently has over 5,000 members and has gained the support of nearly 100 business, organizations and labor unions. According to Kushnir, the organization has evolved from addressing the individual rights entailed in marriage--trust and estate rights, wills, hospital visitations and child custody, among others--to fighting solely for marriage equality. Kushnir believes fighting for such rights on an individual basis almost guarantees omissions and "sends the message to the LGBT community that something other than complete marriage equality is acceptable." As a result, MERI has a unique stance on civil unions--they neither support nor oppose them.
A civil union is a legal status created to give these particular rights to same-sex couples, but only within the state. However, because Rhode Island is DOMA-free, the adoption of civil unions would be a step backwards for Rhode Island same-sex couples who have married in Massachusetts or Connecticut; civil unions would take away the rights of these couples who wed elsewhere legally.
According to Senate Judiciary Committee Secretary Tracy Knox, S0147 (the Marriage Equality Bill) has been "continued"; the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote at a later date on whether or not to send the bill to the Senate floor.
For now, MERI will turn its attention to the House, where a similar gay marriage bill has been filed. There will likely be a hearing in the House.
In order for either S0147 or its House equivalent to pass, the bill must pass both chambers in the exact same form. The bill would then go to the governor to be signed into law.
"It's our understanding that the governor is insistent that he won't sign marriage equality into law," Kushnir said.
In order to override a veto, a three-fifths vote is needed in both the House and Senate.
Though Donald L. Carcieri, Rhode Island√≠s current governor, opposes same-sex marriage, term limits guarantee a new administration in 2010. MERI hopes to capitalize on the new gubernatorial administration to legalize same-sex marriage by 2011.
Last week's state senate hearings were an indication of the work Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) has already accomplished, and the work it must do.
"C'est la vie," says KATIE LINDSTEDT B'11. "Goes to show you never can tell."