Hundreds rally at R.I. State House for marriage equality legislation

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (U-WIRE) – About 200 students, state legislators, community members and activists supporting marriage equality legislation gathered at the State House Wednesday afternoon at a rally sponsored by Marriage Equality R.I.

Speakers urged members of the Rhode Island General Assembly to legalize same-sex marriages and pass a legislative package that would give same-sex partners next-of-kin rights.

The rally occurred while both chambers of the General Assembly were scheduled to be in session, but the legislative sessions were cancelled due to Wednesday’s storm. The rally still took place.

Supporters at the rally held signs with messages such as “Separate Is Not Equal,” “Have a Heart: Pass Marriage Equality” and “Let our marriage license fees help balance the state budget.”

Wendy Becker ’83 and Mary Norton, who were married last year in Massachusetts, spoke at the rally. Accompanied by their two young daughters, Becker criticized the General Assembly for not having passed a marriage equality law. “You should be ashamed to legislate in a state where people have to leave for equality,” she said.

Becker told The Herald the push for marriage equality is based on the ideal of treating people equally under the law. “Denial of marriage rights is a denial of humanity,” she said.

Marriage equality legislation has been introduced in the General Assembly every year since 1997, according to the Marriage Equality R.I. Web site. But the proposed legislation has never been put up for a vote on the floor of the House.

Becker said the legislation has been blocked in past years because the “current leadership is not supportive” of marriage equality and they have “used muscle to prevent a vote.” Nonetheless, she said that support for the cause increases each year.

The Rev. Gene Dyszlewski, a member of the Rhode Island Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality, emphasized at the rally that God embraces all of humanity and that “same-sex marriage is God’s will.” This year, no “Defense of Marriage Act” – proposed in the past to limit marriage to one man and one woman – has been introduced in the General Assembly. Jenn Steinfeld, co-chair of Marriage Equality R.I., said that fact marks a success for the cause of marriage equality. Steinfeld also urged those at the rally to oppose legislation proposing civil unions, which she called “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and “a step backwards for Rhode Island law.”

Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Dist. 3, attended the event alongside Rep. David Segal, D-Dist. 2, and Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts ’78. Ajello, who is co-sponsoring the marriage equality legislation in the House, told The Herald that she believes that, at the very least the portion of the legislation giving same sex partners next-of-kin rights for estate distribution and health care matters has a good chance of passing this year.

Ajello said one of the reasons why the legislation hasn’t passed previously is that some assembly members do not understand that legalizing same-sex marriage would not have an impact on the religious ceremony of marriage. She also said “so-called ‘family-values people’ feel very threatened” by the idea of same-sex marriage.

Ajello said the bill currently has about 20 sponsors, which she said is more than marriage equality legislation has had before.

The Brown Democrats encouraged students to attend the rally. Herald Contributing Writer Allison Ehrich Bernstein ’09, the elections and advocacy chair of the Brown Dems, said the group has been working with Marriage Equality R.I. for several years and that marriage equality is “something that a lot of us believe strongly in.”

The Brown Dems sends students to the State House every week to lobby for marriage equality. Though they have yet to be successful, Bernstein said, “It’s my impression that every year we get a little bit closer, and that persistence is key.”