Rhode Island on Thursday became the 10th state in the nation to legalize gay marriage. The bill passed the state House 56-15, and Gov. Lincoln Chafee didn’t hesitate to sign it into law.
Rhode Island’s decision highlights the state-level debate over same-sex marriage, even as the U.S. Supreme Court mulls its ruling on the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8. It also raises questions about the future of this debate in other states: Is Rhode Island, a staunchly Catholic state where LGBT activists lobbied for more than a decade, the template of the future?
Supporters celebrated today, with many planning August ceremonies to marry their lifelong partners. "This tells me our relationship does matter,” said House Speaker Gordon Fox, referring to his partner Marcus LaFond. “It means that we mean something."
The law passed largely in part to this type of “rights” rhetoric. Pro-gay marriage supporters often contend marriage is a right that should be available to same-sex couples just as much as to heterosexual couples.
But supporters of traditional marriage, like Albert Mohler, pointed out fallacies with that reasoning. Rights, he wrote in a recent blog post, can only come from unchangeable characteristics: “Discrimination on the basis of an unchangeable characteristic such as skin color would be wrong. While recognizing the complexity of issues related to sexual orientation, we cannot define a behavior as an intrinsic characteristic.”
The Catholic Church was Rhode Island’s most significant opponent to the legislation. Bishop Thomas Tobin led the opposition and urged lawmakers to defeat what he called an "immoral and unnecessary" change to traditional marriage law. "Catholics should examine their consciences very carefully before deciding whether or not to endorse same-sex relationships or attend same-sex ceremonies," he wrote. "To do so might harm their relationship with God."
Lawmakers and other religious leaders also raised concerns about religious liberty. So far, the law provides an exemption for religious organizations. They can set their own rules regarding who is eligible to marry within their faith. No religious leader is obligated to officiate at any marriage ceremony and no religious group is required to provide facilities or services related to a gay marriage.
Supporters hope other states will soon follow Rhode Island’s example. They celebrate state victories for same-sex marriage as the future of America.
But Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, says not so fast. "We're talking about states that are not necessarily indicative of the rest of the country,” he told USA Today. “These are pretty deep-blue, liberal states we're talking about." He predicted a tough fight in Delaware, but victories for traditional marriage in New Jersey, Minnesota, and Illinois.
Brown isn’t even fazed by polls that indicate increasing support for gay marriage among millennials. “This idea that somehow young people's ideas are fixed and as they grow older they won't change their ideas is not true,” he said. “We believed all sorts of things when we were younger that we no longer believe."
Others are echoing Brown’s caution. Late last month, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum warned that same-sex marriage is a “trendy issue.” The GOP should not budge, he said. To do so would be “suicidal.”