The Rhode Island House of Representatives passed a bill to recognize civil unions for same-sex couples by a vote of 62-11 on May 26. The measure is viewed by many as a compromise by legislators unable to secure the votes needed to legalize same-sex “marriage.” The bill moves on to the Rhode Island Senate for consideration.
The state’s governor, Lincoln Chafee, supports same-sex “marriage” and is likely to sign the bill if passed by the Senate.
Four of six New England states allow same-sex “marriage,” with the exception of Rhode Island and Maine. (Maine briefly legalized same-sex “marriage” in 2009, but it was overturned by voter referendum.) Same-sex “marriage” bills have been introduced in the Rhode Island Legislature every year since 1997. Passage looked likely earlier this year after Chafee assumed office, but opponents have stalled the effort, hence the substitution of the civil-unions bill.
Over half of the residents of Rhode Island are Catholic, and many have chosen to listen to the voice of their bishop, Thomas Tobin, 63, an outspoken opponent of same-sex “marriage.”
Regarding the civil-union legislation currently making its way through the statehouse, he declared, “It is an unpopular and last-minute attempt at a compromise that satisfies no one and accomplishes little. The civil-unions legislation itself is objectionable since it serves as a gateway to same-sex ‘marriage,’ thus guaranteeing that this divisive debate will continue to grow in our state well into the future.”
Who is behind the effort to legalize same-sex “marriage” in Rhode Island, and what arguments do you make in opposition to it?
Rhode Island is a very liberal state, politically. The vast majority of our General Assembly in both houses are Democrats. The question of “gay marriage” has been on the horizon for many years. Fortunately, in recent years, we had a governor, Gov. Donald Carcieri, who promised to veto it. Gov. Carcieri is a practicing Catholic. Also, both our previous speakers of the House and the president of the Senate kept the lid on same-sex “marriage” in the General Assembly.
That scenario has changed. Our newly elected governor, Lincoln Chafee, is an independent. He made promotion of same-sex “marriage” one of his priorities, even mentioning it in his inaugural address. And the new speaker of the House, Gordon Fox [D-Providence], is an openly gay man who has also made it one of his priorities.
The arguments we’ve been making against same-sex “marriage” are well known. While the Catholic Church has respect, love, pastoral care and compassion for people with homosexual orientation, we believe that homosexual “marriage” is wrong because it gives state approval of an immoral lifestyle involving immoral sexual activity.
Also, it is an attempt to redefine the institution of marriage as it has been understood since the beginning of time. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman and is meant to foster life and love. Homosexual “marriage” can never do that. It is an ill-advised attempt to redefine something God has given us and what is one of the building blocks of human society.
Additionally, the passage of homosexual “marriage” presents a challenge to religious freedom and conscience protection, as has been the case in other places in the country. Our neighbors in the Archdiocese of Boston in Massachusetts, for example, had to get out of the adoption business because they were being forced to place children in situations where there were two gay people living in a home in an alleged marriage. The Archdiocese of Washington had to stop giving family medical benefits because they were being forced to provide them to gay couples who tried to get married in civil marriages.
And there are situations where ancillary Catholic facilities, such as reception halls, must be made available to gay couples as they attempt to marry. All these things are on the radar screen if you go down this road of approving homosexual “marriage.”
How has the Catholic community in Rhode Island responded to efforts to legalize same-sex “marriage?”
Historically, there has been some apathy about it among the citizenry of Rhode Island, including among the Catholic population. But recently, because our political landscape has changed, we’ve done a better job in getting our pastors involved rallying the Catholic faithful against it. I’m proud of what our pastors and people have done, both in reaching out to our legislators and making their voices heard in the media: saying this is not something that is acceptable to us.
We need our people to understand that this is a serious issue. Our greatest danger as a Catholic community is apathy. If we’re not aware of the situation, don’t care about it or make it a priority, “gay marriage” will pass in Rhode Island. But if we’re galvanized and make our voices heard, we’ll keep it out of our state.
It is important to emphasize that this is not just an exercise in partisan politics. This is an expression of our faith. We have to be involved in this issue as disciples of Christ and members of his Church.
Recently, The Providence Phoenix, a liberal-leaning, gay-friendly newspaper here in Providence, ran a lead story by David Scharfenberg: “Will the Catholic Church kill gay marriage?” They gave us a left-handed compliment by saying that we’ve been rather effective in our opposition. We have a long road ahead of us, and a tough fight. I don’t know what the outcome will be. But we’re doing our best.
What have people said to you about your leadership on this issue?
I get both support and criticism. From practicing Catholics, as well as members of other religious communities, I’ve been getting a lot of support. They say, “Thank you for leading the charge,” “Thank you for speaking out” or “This is what we expect the bishops to do.”
There are also those on the other side of the issue who are upset and angry that the Church in general, or I in particular, are so visible and vocal about this issue. They talk about separation of church and state and say we shouldn’t be involved in it, or that we’re “homophobic,” bigoted and interfering in other peoples’ lives. These are all the predictable reactions that you hear surrounding this issue, and they’re leveled time and again against me and the Church. I’m sure such complaints will continue.
You also spoke out against the Obama administration’s decision in February not to defend traditional marriage.
The Obama administration directed the Justice Department to not defend the Defense of Marriage Act. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement, and I did as well, in response to a media inquiry, saying that the president overstepped his authority and abdicated his role and sworn duty to uphold the laws of our nation. It was just another attempt to impose a liberal, politically correct agenda on our nation. It was disappointing.
In 2009, you had a public dispute with former Democrat Congressman Patrick Kennedy over abortion. Can you tell me your side of the story?
It began last year, when Congressman Kennedy publicly criticized the American bishops’ opposition to Obama’s health-care plan. We said we would not support anything that funds abortion or does not offer conscience and religious-freedom protections. Congressman Kennedy strongly criticized us and questioned our commitment to human life and social justice. That prompted my response to him.
What followed was a series of statements from him, and letters from me, that went back and forth. Finally, he revealed the fact that three years before I had written to him privately and confidentially asking him not to present himself for holy Communion because of his position on abortion. It was meant to be a personal, pastoral approach. But in his flurry of public comments, he revealed the letter. It was disappointing, but it gave me the opportunity to reiterate the Church’s teaching on abortion.
You’ve also challenged Republican politicians over the issue of abortion.
I’ve sparred with Republican Rudy Giuliani and a number of other politicians, and it’s been thoroughly nonpartisan. I challenged Rhode Island’s previous Republican governor, Gov. Carcieri, on the immigration issue. I challenged Congressman Kennedy, a Democrat, and Gov. Chafee, an independent. Their political party means nothing to me.
I’m trying to take the Gospel of Christ and the teachings of the Church and apply them in the public arena. I think it’s the role of the Church and the bishop to express a prophetic voice. It is an important part of our tradition.
Register correspondent Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.