Opponents and proponents of same-sex marriage are retooling after Rhode Island House Speaker Gordon Fox announced April 27 that there was not enough support to pass same-sex marriage legislation in 2011.
A few days after that announcement, Christopher Plante, executive director of National Organization for Marriage - Rhode Island, which opposes gay marriage, was part of a panel on WPRI's "Newsmakers" program, which aired May 1.
"I don't believe Gordon Fox had the votes. Our head count showed pretty clearly that they didn't have the votes and he had to make the decision he did," he said. "Similarly, the people of Rhode Island don't want same-sex marriage."
NOM-RI has been quick to cite the polls it has commissioned as part of its campaign to press the governor and General Assembly to put the question of gay marriage to a statewide referendum. So we wondered whether any polls show that Rhode Islanders, in fact, don't want same-sex marriage.
We called Plante to see if he had any updated numbers. He didn't. He said he was basing his assertion on the belief that a majority of residents had contacted their legislators to object to same-sex marriage, which is why Fox said there weren't enough votes in the House to pass a bill.
People who call their legislators don't necessarily reflect the opinion of the general public, just as legislators don't always vote with the majority of their constituents. (In this case, House spokesman Larry Berman told us that the calls coming in to Fox's office "were fairly evenly divided between those in favor of same-sex marriage and those opposed." )
Even opinion polls aren't perfectly reflective because they usually only survey likely voters. But opinion polls are the best indicator we have, so we reviewed recent polls that addressed the issue.
NOM-RI itself has done surveys in Rhode Island. In its most recent, in December 2009, respondents were asked: "As far as you are concerned personally, do you favor or oppose same-sex marriage in Rhode Island? And do you feel strongly about this?
A majority of those with an opinion actually endorsed same-sex marriage -- 42.6 percent said they strongly or somewhat favored it. Another 32.2 percent strongly or somewhat opposed it -- clearly not a majority, even among those who responded. Just under 23 percent were undecided and the rest had no opinion.
That was up from a poll the group conducted six months earlier, when support for gay marriage was 36 percent and opposition was pegged at 43 percent.
(In an example of how you can get a different answer if you word the question differently, NOM-RI turned the question on its head in both surveys by asking respondents whether they supported or opposed this statement: "Only marriage between a man and a woman will be valid or recognized in Rhode Island."
(In the December 2009 survey, 44.9 percent expressed support for the statement [and, by implication, opposition to gay marriage], 43.6 percent felt the other way, and 9.7 were undecided. But even that question showed a significant increase in support for gay marriage compared to the poll six months earlier, when 52 percent agreed with the anti-gay-marriage statement and 38 percent expressed opposition to it.)
Supporters of gay marriage have done their own polling.
In a July 2010 poll commissioned by Rhode Island Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (RI-GLAD), 59 percent of 502 likely voters said they strongly or somewhat favored "allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally." Thirty-one percent were somewhat or strongly opposed. In a 2008 RI_GLAD poll, 49 percent favored same-sex marriage; in 2006, 45 percent approved.
However, when we looked closer at the 2010 RI-GLAD survey, we found that it initially primed respondents by telling them in an earlier question that, "Churches, clergy and other religious institutions would NOT be required to perform same-sex marriages." That reassurance might have bumped up the approval rating.
The only independent Rhode Island poll we found was released by Brown University in May 2009, before the NOM-RI and RI-GLAD polls. Its survey of 593 registered voters found that 60 percent of registered Rhode Islanders expressed support when asked, "Would you support or oppose a law that would allow same-sex couples to get married?" Thirty one percent said they would oppose it. About half of the opposition was hard core - 17 percent said they would even oppose civil unions for gay couples.
We mentioned those results to Plante.
"Would I repeat that I believe the majority of Rhode Islanders don't want gay marriage? Yeah, I'll repeat that," he said when we spoke with him. "Can I give you a definitive poll that shows that? No."
But he also said that his claim is justified because House Speaker Fox couldn't get enough votes for gay marriage in his own chamber. That, he asserted, is because people were "calling their representatives and saying 'We don't want this.' . . . I wasn't making a statistical claim."
We disagree. Of course it’s a statistical claim. When you say "the people of Rhode Island don't want same-sex marriage" you're saying that more than 50 percent would oppose such legislation.
The most recent polls from Brown, RI-GLAD and even NOM-RI -- Plante’s organization -- show the opposite.
Not only did the trends in the NOM-RI and RI-GLAD polls show opposition to same-sex marriage evaporating, the Brown and RI-GLAD polls showed that the public wants gay couples to have the right to marry, even if you assume that every voter who didn't express an opinion was opposed to gay marriage.
Plante's assertion isn't just false. It's ridiculous. We rate it Pants On Fire!
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ProJo.com, "RI Speaker: Gay marriage off the table this year in R.I. / Video," April 28, 2011
WPRI.com, "Newsmakers 4/29: Holt, Plante, Fogarty," aired May 1, 2011, accessed May 4, 2011
Interview, Christopher Plante, executive director, National Organization for Marriage - Rhode Island, May 5, 2011
ProJo.com, "Quest Research June Rhode Island Issues Survey," June 15, 2009, accessed May 5, 2011
National Organization for Marriage - Rhode Island, "Frequencies from December 2009," accessed May 4, 2011
GLAD.org, "Rhode Island GLAD Frequency Questionnaire, July 7-12, 2010," accessed May 5, 2011
Greenbergresearch.com, "Rhode Island Voters Support Marriage Equality - Survey results," July 22, 2010, accessed May 4, 2011
News.Brown.edu, "Most Rhode Islanders Support Same-Sex Marriage, Survey Finds," May 27, 2009, accessed May 4, 2011
Email, Larry Berman, spokesman, Rhode Island House, May 10, 2011
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