The line to get through the doors of the State House spilled out onto the concourse Tuesday night, when hundreds gathered to testify at the House Judiciary Committee hearing on the marriage equality bill.
Hundreds of opponents gathered to rally in the Rotunda, chanting, singing and bearing signs that read, “We do not support HB 5015” (the number of the bill). The rally started at 4 p.m. and lasted for hours, resounding throughout the marbled halls.
Meanwhile, inside room 313, members of the House Committee on Judiciary listened to testimony from hundreds of witnesses. More than 300 people signed up to testify, and the hearing ran for just over six hours. At the end of the hearing, at roughly 11:10 p.m., the committee recommended the bill be held for further study, and it is scheduled for a vote on Tuesday afternoon.
Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston) introduced the bill this session and is taking his 11th crack at getting it passed. Rep. Mike Pisaturo of Cranston submitted similar legislation for six years prior to Handy. Now in its 17th year, the battle for marriage equality raged on Tuesday night.
Handy kicked off testimony and spoke about his piece of legislation, accompanied at the witness table by marriage equality supporters Governor Lincoln Chafee, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Warwick Rep. Frank Ferri. Ferri, who has been with his husband Tony for 32 years – the two were married in Canada in 2006 – said he was “encouraged and humbled” by the support at the State House Tuesday night.
“It’s very encouraging that Rhode Island is ready for this now,” said Ferri, who said he is confident the House will pass the bill, and hopeful the Senate will “do the right thing,” too.
“The bill has really had a lot of thought and consideration,” said Handy in an interview yesterday. “It’s done, it’s ready to go.”
This session’s version of the bill gives special consideration to religious organizations that do not wish to marry same sex couples in their places of worship, something that Handy feels makes the bill stronger than before.
Those who testified in favor of the marriage equality bill spoke about their personal experiences in same sex relationships, or about the relationships of those they know and love. They drove home the point that allowing same sex couples to marry will not affect the marriages of heterosexual couples, and that homosexuals are just as “normal” as anyone else.
Since Tuesday was the birthday of activist Martin Luther King Jr., many proponents referenced his legacy, and called same sex marriage a civil rights issue.
Nancy Green gave testimony about her own interracial marriage to her husband, a marriage that would not have been allowed but for the Supreme Court’s ruling in Loving v. Virginia in 1967. “Don’t be on the wrong side of history,” urged supporters of the bill to the committee.
Those who testified against marriage equality argued it was not a civil rights issue, and that civil unions already allowed same sex couples the equality they sought.
Some said the “marriage equality” issue would not end with same sex marriage, and would lead to underage, incestuous and polygamous marriages in the future.
Many opponents referenced the Bible and religion, saying that the act of homosexuality is “unholy.” Joshua Lieder said he once had an “unholy union with a man,” but has now been married to his wife, Diane, for two years. He said Satan is responsible for the push to legalize same sex marriage.
Opponents also argued that marriage, by definition, is between a man and a woman, and that homosexual unions violate “natural order” because they cannot produce children.
Despite the stance that some religious individuals and leaders took, some clergy members spoke in favor of the bill.
Rev. Eugene Dyszlewski and Rev. John Huyck joined Reverend Don Anderson, the executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, at the witness table; all three men testified in favor of same sex marriage. Rabbi Sarah Mack from Temple Beth El voiced her support of marriage equality, as did Rev. Betty Kornitzer of the Unitarian Universalists of South County.
Laura Pisaturo, a former Warwick Senate candidate, testified on behalf of same sex marriage. Pisaturo, who is married to Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Robert’s communications director, Maria Tocco, lost out in the September primary to Senator Michael McCaffrey. McCaffrey serves as the chair of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, and maintains the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.
“The state was founded on principles of tolerance,” said Pisaturo, a lifelong Rhode Island resident at Tuesday’s hearing. She and Tocco now live in Warwick but were married in Boston.
“It was the best decision of our lives,” she said.
As the hours of testimony continued, the din of the rally in the Rotunda could be heard through the walls of the committee room. Those standing in the hall just a few yards away bore signs that read “Remember Sodom and Gamorrah,” and “Preserve the sanctity of marriage as established by God.”
Despite the stark divide of opinions on the bill, some politicians took stances that blurred party lines. Former RI GOP Chair Giovanni Cicione joined Edwin Pacheco, chair of the RI Democratic Party, to testify in favor of marriage equality.
“This is not a Democrat or Republican issue,” said Pacheco. “This is a Rhode Island issue, and American issue, a civil rights issue.”
Freshman Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick) sat on the Judiciary Committee for the first time Tuesday night, referring to the experience on Twitter as “baptism by fire.”
Shekarchi said he is “generally OK” with the bill but said he will take time over the next several days to mull over the spoken testimonials and read the written ones that were submitted. Shekarchi believes the bill will be voted out of committee on Tuesday and will ultimately pass the House. He said those concerned about the outcome of the bill should “concentrate on the Senate,” which he called a “battleground.” He thinks the vote there will be very close.
Handy said he is hopeful the bill will get a floor vote in the House before the end of the month. He said while he is “extremely optimistic” about the passage of the bill, he is also cautious.
“I have to gauge my optimism … because of the way this building works,” he said.