PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Efforts to extend marriage rights to gay couples in Rhode Island suffered a decisive setback Wednesday when a key legislative champion said he was abandoning a push to pass gay marriage legislation this year.
House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is gay, said the legislation has “no realistic chance” of passing the state’s General Assembly this year. Fox, a Providence Democrat, said instead he will support new legislation creating civil unions that would offer substantially the same rights given by the state to married couples.
“This is the best we can do right now,” he said. “Full marriage will happen. I’m born and bred in Rhode Island. When I do get married it will be in my home state.”
The announcement deeply disappointed those who hoped this would be the year the Ocean State joined five other states in recognizing gay marriage. Groups that led the fight for gay marriage said they wouldn’t support any measure that falls short of full marriage. While a civil union may offer many of the legal rights of marriage, it’s still a separate, lesser category than marriage, said Martha Holt, board chairwoman of Marriage Equality Rhode Island.
“Civil unions are a compromise for no one,” Holt said. “We are extremely disappointed in the lack of leadership at the Statehouse, and we would urge Speaker Fox to rethink sponsoring legislation that would create a second class of citizens.”
New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Iowa and Massachusetts and the District of Columbia have gay marriage laws.
Opponents of gay marriage said Fox’s decision is welcome news. But they are wary of civil unions, too, because states including Vermont started with civil unions before enacting gay marriage laws.
“Civil unions are a judicial stepping stone to same-sex marriage,” said Chris Plante, director of the Rhode Island Chapter of the National Organization for Marriage. “We’ll see what he (Fox) comes up with, but we have grave misgivings.”
Still, civil unions may be more politically palatable in the General Assembly. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed’s opposition was a key obstacle to gay marriage legislation. The Newport Democrat says she supports civil union legislation and believes the bill will win broad support in the Senate.
Sen. Donna Nesselbush, a Pawtucket Democrat, supported the gay marriage bill but said she’ll support civil union legislation.
“Some benefits are better than no benefits,” she said.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, had hoped to sign a gay marriage bill into law. Last month Chafee hosted Democratic Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who visited Rhode Island to urge lawmakers to skip civil unions in favor of marriage for gay couples.
But Chafee said Wednesday that Fox is right to be pragmatic.
“I think it’s inevitable,” Chafee said of gay marriage in Rhode Island. “But it doesn’t look like we had the votes this year.”
That’s little solace to Patricia Baker and Deborah Tevyaw. The women married in Massachusetts five years ago but live in Johnston. Baker, a 54-year-old correction officer, has terminal lung cancer and hoped to see gay marriage in Rhode Island before she dies.
On Wednesday she gave up that hope. She says civil unions are no substitute for full marriage rights.
“The energy that went into this, the countless hours, the petitions, the testimony,” Baker said. “This could have been our year. Instead, they’re throwing us a bone. I’d rather have nothing.”