Religious exemption may be the fine line that dictates the future of same sex marriage legalization in the state of Rhode Island. It is currently the only New England state that has yet to authorize same sex marriage despite 60% of its population recently polled is in encouragement for it.
While the bill has already passed the House early this year, it has yet to pass the Senate. Senate prospects pan out as challenging, considering that President Teresa Paiva Weed (D) is against same sex marriage. She is pushing for a solution that would exempt individuals and religious organizations such as hospitals and schools from recognizing same sex unions altogether — therefore leaving the door open to bar certain benefits to same sex couples. However, Weed promises to provide a "full and fair debate" on what is a meaningful issue for all lawmakers involved.
Current exemptions on the bill passed by the House state that religious organizations are able to set rules on who is allowed to marry according to their doctrine and that no religious leader can be forced to marry a couple. A broadening of this exemption could lead to religious hospitals barring partners for being able to make decisions for one another and denied joint burial plots at cemeteries.
Religious and same sex marriages have constantly been opposing forces in the struggle for recognition. States have handled the religious aspect and freedoms at hand of the debate in various ways. For example, religious exemption amendments were the big factors that allowed passage of same sex marriage in states such as New York and New Hampshire. And in there are no religious exemption laws in Rhode Island's neighboring state Massachusetts.
Couple Maria Valente and Andrea Bond told the Boston Globe of their story of their Massachusetts wedding which failed to be recognized when in Rhode Island, Valentine was not allowed to be in the operating room alongside Bond during surgery. In coming across stories like this does the realization of the struggles that same sex couples face finds real world context. The balance between maintaining religious freedom while not stamping out the freedom of individuals is not an easy task. To expand freedoms allotted by religious organizations means the further impairment of same sex couples within the religious sphere. But what if the Senate decides that path is the one necessary to have same sex marriage legalized? In the end, the overall victory of the bill would have to make up for pitfalls — and is that the type of future same sex marriage will have to face? Are they worth it?
As the U.S. draws closer to what seems like the climax on the fate of same sex marriage, smaller conversations and debates similar to the case of Rhode Island can either make or break the big players like the looming DOMA case.
Regardless, if passed, Rhode Island would become the 10th state to legalize same sex marriage.