State Sen. Lou Raptakis (D-Coventry, E.G., W.W.) has removed his name as a sponsor of legislation to hold a referendum on same sex marriage, but he’s stopped short of saying he will definitely support allowing a bill legalizing same sex marriage to be voted on by the full Senate. Raptakis is one of ten members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel in control of the legislation right now.
Senate Bill 708, sponsored by Sen. Frank A. Ciccone III (D-Providence), would put a referendum before voters, asking if they want to legalize same-sex marriage by adding language to the state Constitution that defines marriage as "the legally-recognized union of two people."
Senate Bill 38, sponsored by Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket), would define marriage as "the legally recognized union" of two people, regardless of gender. It mirrors legislation that passed the House in January.
Raptakis had initially co-sponsored the Ciccone bill but took his name off the legislation last week, saying it would allow small businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. The bill would establish legal protections for people opposed to same-sex marriage on religious grounds, including small business owners. Under the bill, those people wouldn’t have to provide goods, services or accommodations for same-sex couples seeking to wed.
"They were exempting small business. I think it’s outrageous to discriminate because of sexual orientation," Raptakis said Sunday, two days afer the end of the 12-hour hearing on both bills before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Raptakis remained at the hearing for the full 12 hours.
Raptakis told East Greenwich Patch in January he's opposed to same sex marriage on a personal level: "I believe in a traditional marriage between a man and a woman. That's my personal opinion."
On Sunday, he said, "I want to see a version of the bill to be debated in front of the whole body," referring to the Nesselbush bill. But he stopped short of saying he'd vote for the bill to get out of committee as it appears today. "I haven't made up my mind yet 100 percent. We don't know what the bill's going to look like."
Raptakis said he's been getting 30 to 40 phone calls and emails a day on the issue – "a very high volume." He noted that's 10 times the volume of what he gets for budget-related issues.
Raptakis did say even if he votes for the Nesselbush bill in committee, "that doesn’t mean I’ll vote the same way on the floor."
Raptakis also suggested maybe Rhode Island should wait to see what the U.S. Supreme Court – which is hearing two cases on same sex marriage this week – does on the issue. They will render decisions in those cases by June.
Dawson Hodgson, an advocate of same sex marriage, said he didn't think the Supreme Court's decisions should dictate what happens in Rhode Island.
If the Supreme Court allows for federal institution of same sex marriage, Hodgson said, the Rhode Island legislature would still have to act, to bring state law into compliance with federal law.
"The legislature would either have to act or a homosexual couple would have to sue, he said. "That's not the way we should do it."
It's unclear when Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick) will call a vote on the two bills. A Raptakis "yes" vote in committee on the Nesselbush bill would give it enough votes to go to the full Senate, according to Ray Sullivan, executive director of Rhode Island Marriage Equality.