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Gay Marriage: A Question of Fairness

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Earlier this month, the New Hampshire legislature took another step in our country's ongoing struggle to ensure full equality for gays and lesbians by voting to permit same-sex couples in their state to legally enter into civil marriages. The vote makes New Hampshire the sixth state in the country -- along with Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and Maine -- to provide equal marriage rights to all its residents, and it now leaves Rhode Island as the only New England state that does not permit same-sex marriage.

To me, the issue of same-sex marriage boils down to a question of basic fairness. Gays and lesbians have contributed to the diverse fabric of Rhode Island and the rest of the country for generations, strengthening our communities in innumerable ways. We all know someone who is openly gay or lesbian, and almost all of us share the same basic aspirations: a safe town and an affordable home to live in; a good job to provide us and our families with economic security; good schools for our children; quality health care; and, perhaps most importantly, someone to love and share our lives with. Once you acknowledge that homosexuality exists not by choice, the next obvious step is to grant gays and lesbians the same liberties and freedoms as every other American.

As a proud Rhode Islander who thinks of my state as a leader when it comes to treating others with dignity and respect, it troubles me to think we've fallen behind in granting our gay and lesbian family members and friends something as fundamentally important as the right to have their relationships fully recognized by the state. That is not in keeping with Rhode Island's proud history of inclusion and progressiveness, which can be traced back to its very foundation. With the granting of the state's charter in 1663, Charles II created a democratic republic unprecedented in the New World, establishing the country's first secular government, unaffiliated with any church; granting individual freedom of religion and intellectual expression; and establishing the first representative republic in a country where all the other colonies were ruled by governors appointed by the King. Under this remarkable, gender-neutral charter, Rhode Island became one of the most important colonies in the New World. While most people today take for granted these principles in the American system of government, in the 17th century, it was a bold, even dangerous, new experiment.

I understand that the issue of same-sex marriage can often be difficult to grapple with. For some, their opposition is rooted in their upbringings or the teachings of their religion, with many opponents of same-sex marriage citing fears about their church having to perform those marriages as cause for their opposition. However, those fears are unfounded, as pending legislation in Rhode Island and laws in the six states that currently permit same-sex marriage deal exclusively with civil, not religious, marriage. To further clarify this fact, several states that recognize same-sex marriage, including New Hampshire, added language to their marriage bills expressly protecting the right of churches to choose not to recognize same-sex marriages if they go against their religious teachings, a model that could certainly be followed in Rhode Island to appease any state legislators with lingering concerns about church autonomy.

Another argument frequently heard by opponents of same sex marriage -- in particular elected officials -- is that this issue was forced on citizens by activist judges and that their constituents don't support it. This claim, too, is false. All but two of the states permitting same-sex marriage have had their marriage laws passed or affirmed by votes in their respective state legislatures, with legislators who voted for same-sex marriage overwhelmingly winning reelection in the states that have held elections since those marriage votes were taken. Here in Rhode Island, a recent Brown University poll showed an overwhelming 60 percent majority of state residents in favor of same-sex marriage, with only 31 percent opposed. That poll further underscores the fact that it is long-past time for Rhode Island to pass a marriage bill granting same-sex couples the rights they deserve.

I served the residents of Rhode Island as both Mayor of Warwick and a United States Senator, and in that time I have dealt with my share of controversial issues. I have seen people of diverse backgrounds and divergent political affiliations come together to do what is right when the best interests of our state's citizens were at stake. Rhode Island legislators should follow in the footsteps of our fellow New England states and be true to our pioneering history of tolerance by advancing a marriage equality bill. But for that to happen, all of us in Rhode Island who believe in full equality need to do our part by voicing support for same-sex marriage loudly and clearly.