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Gay Marriage Effort Stalls In Heavily Catholic Rhode Island

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Gay marriage could soon become the law of the land across New England _ except in the heavily Roman Catholic state of Rhode Island.

A string of sudden successes for gay marriage advocates has left Rhode Island a political outlier. Maine became the fourth state in New England to legalize same-sex unions on Wednesday, while New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch is now deciding whether to sign similar legislation.

Vermont lawmakers established gay marriage last month, following a path already set by courts in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Yet the movement has stalled in Rhode Island, perhaps even lost ground, after a stalemate at the Statehouse, a loss in the state's top court and continued opposition from religious leaders.

"I do not hear voices raised, voices stating absolutely that this just cannot do," said Cassandra Ormiston, 62, a lesbian who could not get divorced in Rhode Island after she and her partner married in Massachusetts. "It is not enough to be patient."

Religion remains among the biggest hurdles. A recent survey by Trinity College in Connecticut showed 46 percent of Rhode Islanders identify themselves as Roman Catholic, a larger percentage than any other state.

Given its size, the church carries political clout. On the last Inauguration Day, every statewide elected official began the morning with a special Mass at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, celebrated by Bishop Thomas Tobin.

Tobin does not hesitate to tussle with politicians, especially on gay marriage. He calls gay unions a perversion of natural law and a violation of an institution that Catholics believe was created by God.

Two years ago, he harshly criticized Attorney General Patrick Lynch, a Catholic, for advising state agencies to recognize the marriages of gay couples wed outside Rhode Island.

"We don't see it as a civil rights issue," Tobin said in a recent interview, "because there's never a right to do something that's morally wrong."

Bills legalizing gay marriage have been introduced in the Statehouse every year since 1997. None has ever been approved by a legislative committee, required before those bills could be aired on the full floor.

House Speaker William Murphy and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, both Democrats and Catholics, oppose gay marriage.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Rhoda Perry, a Democrat from Providence, does not expect to get a vote this year. She believes legislative leaders are trying to shield fellow lawmakers from a fractious debate.

"You know your numbers," Perry said. "So why make anyone even have to vote on something that at least some of their constituents will be upset about if you already know the votes aren't there."

Even if a simple majority of lawmakers backed Perry's bill, Republican Gov. Don Carcieri _ another Catholic _ would almost certainly veto it. Overriding a veto requires the support of 60 percent of lawmakers in each chamber.

Courts legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts and Connecticut, but that avenue seems unlikely in Rhode Island.

In 2007, Rhode Island's Supreme Court refused to let Ormiston divorce her wife, Margaret Chambers. The couple lived in Rhode Island but married across the border in Massachusetts.

In its ruling, the court said it could not grant a divorce because Rhode Island lawmakers have never recognized marriage as anything but a union between a man and a woman.

Frustrated with the slow pace in Rhode Island, Ormiston is parting ways with Marriage Equality Rhode Island, which has locally advocated for gay marriage, and starting a new organization, called Equality Rising, to push harder.

"It is not enough to wait until we no longer have opposition," she said.

It might become slightly easier for those looking to legalize gay marriage in Rhode Island when Carcieri finishes his second and final term as governor in January 2011. Potential candidates including former Sen. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, and Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts and Attorney General Patrick Lynch, both Democrats, support gay marriage.

General Treasurer Frank Caprio, also a Democrat, said he would not veto a gay marriage bill if he were elected governor.

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