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Saturday, June 26, 2021

General Assembly bill to end discriminatory process of solemnizing marriages is a moment for Pride

Not only should the Governor sign the bill, he should do so as a celebration of Pride.

By Steve Ahlquist

EDITOR'S NOTE: For some legislators, the only bills they can get passed are those that authorize a person otherwise not eligible to officiate over a marriage to do so. Take Charlestown's state rep Blake "Flip" Filippi, for example. These kinds of bills, plus resolutions of condolences and congratulations are just about the only legislation Flip gets passed.   - Will Collette

Six years ago I was writing at, and I stumbled across an interesting piece of legislative discrimination. Despite Marriage Equality – the right for LGBTQ couples to marry – being passed in 2013, there were some legislators so blinded by homophobia that they had figured out a way to continue to vote against LGBTQ marriages two years later. 

In fact the practice of sitting in judgement on marriages, certifying some as worthy of a vote and some as unworthy, continues in some form or another to this very day. But that may be ending soon.

Here’s what I wrote in 2015:

When the General Assembly abruptly ended its legislative season this year, it did so having passed 117 “Solemnization of Marriage” bills. These bills are perfunctory legislative favors done by Representatives and Senators for their constituents. Essentially, if a couple wishes to be married, but the officiant of their dreams is not permitted to marry the couple by law, a “Solemnization of Marriage” bill allows a one time exception.

With this bill passed, a beloved relative or family friend will now be able to conduct the wedding ceremony. Because these bills are so common, they are usually bundled together as part of a “consent calendar” which is passed with little discussion and no fanfare.

Many who voted against same-sex marriage two years ago continue that battle today and some new legislators have joined the fight by voting against solemnization of marriage bills for same-sex couples. This means that anyone seeking these perfunctory legislative favors are now putting themselves in a position to have their marriage judged by religious conservatives. These votes served to remind 25 couples that their marriage is not worthy of the same level of respect as others.

Out of the 117 solemnization bills passed last year, six were for couples with names that are traditionally associated with the same sex. Misty and Dawn, Elizabeth and Nancy, Alicia and Laura, William and Michael, Kristin and Rebecca, and Emilie and Michelle all sought and received solemnization of marriage bills. Two other couples, Sarah and Chris and Rebeccah and Alex may or not be same-sex couples, judging from the names. Of course, perusing the names like this is by no means a perfect system, so I apologize if I have missed or mischaracterized anyone based solely on a heteronormative reading of their name.

Consistently voting against same-sex marriages are Representatives Samuel AzzinaroArthur Corvese and Robert Phillips. Reps Justin PriceJoseph TrilloRobert Lancia and Sherry Roberts frequently vote against same-sex solemnization bills.

Because solemnization bills are frequently bundled and passed together on a consent calendar, oftentimes these legislators find themselves voting against opposite sex marriages that happen to be part of a bundle that contains just one same-sex marriage. On May 19 Azzinaro, Corvese, Lancia, Phillips, Price, Roberts and Trillo voted against 5 marriages in total because William wanted to marry Michael. And On May 12 Azzinaro, Corvese, Phillips, Price and Trillo voted against 6 marriages because Alicia wanted to marry Rose.

I spoke by phone with Rep. Azzinaro, a Democrat serving District 37 in Westerly, about his no votes, which he says are based on his religious beliefs. Azzinaro introduced 7 solemnization bills last season, all of which passed without a single no vote.

“It’s not in my belief,” said Azzinaro about same sex marriage, “I didn’t vote for it when it was brought to the House for a vote and I don’t feel I can vote for any of these same-sex marriages.”

I asked how legislators determine which bills are for same-sex marriages and which are for opposite sex marriages. “We usually try to find out also from the sponsor of the bill if it’s a male and a female or a same-sex couple marriage, if we’re not sure,” Azzinaro said.

He went on to say that if a same sex couple in his district came to him and asked him to submit a solemnization of marriage bill before the House, he would tell them no. I asked him how he thinks his constituents would feel about that, given that he discriminates against his same-sex constituents in what kind of services he offers, based on their sexual orientation.

“They have to know who I am, how I feel,” he said.

Sadly, the piece above had little effect on the offending legislators, or on then Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello (Democrat, District 15, Cranston), who thought of these solemnization bills as little favors legislators could do for their constituents, and gave little thought to the fact that some marriages were now, in the eyes of the Rhode Island general Assembly, more worthy than others. 

I ended up writing more pieces about the practice, at least eight more times. It happened in the Senate and the House during Judiciary Hearings. It happened on the floor. Sometimes the votes would be disguised by bundling the bills together and not really announcing why they were leaving one particular marriage bill aside for a separate vote.

Here are some of the pieces I’ve written since 2015:

RI Senate still allowing legislators to treat some marriages differently than others

The battle for Marriage Equality in Rhode Island continues

All marriages are equal, but some marriages are more equal than others…

In the eyes of certain State Senators, some marriages are less worthy

Four members of the Rhode Island House just voted against a gay wedding…

General Assembly persists in its policy of institutionalized bigotry against the LGBTQ community

Separate and Unequal: How certain State Senators continue to pass judgement on same sex marriages

RI General Assembly still voting on marriage equality

Now, the General Assembly announced that they had successfully passed legislation doing away with the legislative system of solemnizing weddings. Instead of appealing to the legislature and requiring a vote, the system will be automated through the Rhode Island Secretary of State‘s office. 

The act (S0014B / H5034A) would allow the governor to designate any adult to solemnize a marriage within the state on a particular day and within a particular city or town. 

The authorization would expire upon completion of the marriage. A fee in the amount of $25 would be a prerequisite and would be payable to the secretary of state, or a fee of $20 for applications that are submitted electronically.

Sadly, the sponsors, Senator Michael McCaffrey (Democrat, District 29, Warwick) and Representative Katherine Kazarian (Democrat, District 63, East Providence) did not mention that the legislative administration of the solemnization process was often discriminatory as a reason to pass the bill.

“It is an inconvenience to the people of Rhode Island that they need to seek a formal act of law just because they want a friend or family member to officiate at their wedding,” said Senator McCaffrey. “Votes and committee meetings are also a very inefficient way to handle what amounts to a clerical task. Getting married should be a joyous occasion, and there’s no reason the state needs to bog it down with red tape.”

“This bill will modernize the process by placing it online and ensuring that it’s available to all Rhode Islanders year round,” said Representative Kazarian. 

“Some time ago, I was contacted by a constituent in July about their nuptials scheduled for September. Unfortunately, the General Assembly had already concluded its session for the year and there was no other alternative possible. It broke my heart when I had to tell my constituent there was nothing more that I could offer to ensure their perfect wedding with the officiant of their choice and this is why passing this legislation will modernize our system and make the process more accessible and customer-friendly for all Rhode Islanders.”

Still, those testifying in committee understood the importance of the bill in securing equity for LGBTQ marriages. During the judiciary committee hearing on Senator McCaffrey’s bill both Hilary Levy Friedman, President of Rhode Island NOW and LGBTQ activist and advocate Wendy Becker testified as to the bill’s importance in protecting the dignity of LGBTQ marriages. 

The bill, passed now by the Senate and the House, moves on to the desk of Governor Daniel McKee. Asked at his press conference on Tuesday about the bill, the Governor seemed unaware of it. Not only should the Governor sign the bill, he should do so as a celebration of Pride.