EAST PROVIDENCE — Supporters on both sides of the same-sex marriage issue have staked out East Providence as the epicenter of their efforts as the Rhode Island Senate begins its process of voting on proposed pieces of legislation, specifically targeting freshmen upper chamber member William J. Conley.
Sen. Conley (D-Dist. 18, East Providence, Pawtucket) is seen by those for and against the bills as the swing member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which plans to vote on the proposals Tuesday, April 23.
Which one of the measures, if any, that emerges from committee for a full Senate floor vote will determine the direction the state takes on same-sex marriage.
Bill S38 would legalize same-sex marriage and expanded protections for religiously affiliated organizations that oppose it. It is a companion bill to the one passed (H5015) earlier this session in the State House of Representatives by an overwhelming 51-19 majority.
The main difference in the competing measure the Senate Judiciary Committee will look at Tuesday is how the legislation would be passed. Bill S708 would take the vote out of the General Assembly and place in on the ballot for a state-wide referendum.
Those for same-sex marriage received a boost in the hours preceding the committee vote when the upper chamber’s five Republican members, including Sen. David Bates (R-Dist. 32, East Providence, Barrington), issued a statement in support of the measure.
The statement read in part, “We recognize that there is a national consensus building on this generational issue, and we are glad that support for the freedom to marry is growing within the Republican Party.
“Today we join the 209 other Republican state legislators across America who have stood up for the freedom to marry…we are proud to add our voices to reaffirm the principles of freedom and equality under the law.”
While Republicans only recently indicated their stance on the issue, Sen. Conley’s intention has been the focus of intense lobbying from both sides.
Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, a same-sex marriage advocacy group, took out a full-page advertisement in the April 18 edition of The East Providence Post and held a rally Monday, April 22, at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany on Pawtucket Avenue in Rumford, just a few blocks away from Sen. Conley’s residence.
At the three previous East Providence City Council meetings, mostly anti-same-sex marriage individuals and groups appeared not only to denounce the Council’s resolution in support of the legislation, but also to publicly urge Sen. Conley, an observing Catholic, to vote in opposition of the measure.
The Rhode Island Catholic Church, through Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, has been pronounced in its opposition of same-sex marriage. Locally, Rev. John Codega, the pastor of St. Brendan Church of which Sen. Conley is a communicant, has also been vociferous in his stance against the measure, speaking at a City Council meeting as well as from the pulpit on the issue.
In an interview with The Post and eastbayri.com a few weeks into his term, Sen. Conley said he was a bit surprised by all the attention he was receiving on the issue. He also said he would wait until testimony had been given on the topic before deciding how he vote.
“It’s a very important decision, I know, for many people in Rhode Island,” Sen. Conley said back in late January. “I have not yet made up my mind. I believe it’s very important for the process to make sure all sides on the issue have a full and fair opportunity to be heard.”
The 11-member Senate Judiciary Committee includes Donna M. Nesselbush, the sponsor of the same-sex bill S38, Stephen R. Archambault, Dawson Tucker Hodgson, Paul V. Jabour, Frank S. Lombardi, Erin P. Lynch, Michael J. McCaffrey, Harold M. Metts, Dominick J. Ruggerio and Leonidas P. Raptakis.