Rhode Island lawmakers began consideration Wednesday of three bills related to same-sex marriage.
One would recognize civil unions as marriage. The second would allow same-sex marriage. And a third would allow same-sex couples married in another state to divorce in Rhode Island.
State Rep. Frank Ferri first came to the State House to testify for same-sex marriage in 1998. He married his longtime companion, Tony, in 2006, but he had to go to Canada to do it.
Same-sex marriage is legal in some states, but not Rhode Island. Lawmakers passed a civil union bill last year, but with an amendment by Rep. Arthur Corvese that allows institutions affiliated with religious institutions to ignore civil unions.
Ferri said that could be significant to him.
“I have heart disease. If I have an emergency and I get rushed to the hospital, the nearest hospital is Fatima. They can refuse to see my husband. They can refuse to let Tony in, make any decisions about my health. That’s what this amendment did. It sets it up so it actually takes away rights,” Ferri said.
“It actually doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t protect individuals’ right to conscience. It protects the religious organizations and their affiliated groups, but it doesn’t protect the individual’s rights. So, if you’re a wedding photographer who happens to hold deeply held religious beliefs on marriage. Suddenly marriage has been redefined for us and now you’re a bigot?” said the Rev. Bernard Healey, of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference.
Healey has been a State House lobbyist for years. Ferri said church influence at the Legislature is strong.
“I’ll be excommunicated because my monsignor. I’ve actually heard that. I’ve had that discussion. You know, the bishop has visited some of the legislators. Their lobbying is influential here,” Ferri said.
Healey makes no apologies for the church’s involvement.
“We have a voice to offer to public policy debates. It’s called freedom of religion, and we’ve always been welcome,” Healey said.
Rhode Island lawmakers have been considering same-sex marriage legislation for 15 years.