Updated October 4 at 12:45am

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Gay marriage would boost R.I. economy, Chafee says


BOSTON – When most politicians push same-sex marriage, they talk about equal rights. Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee has a different selling point: competitiveness.

The Ocean State’s refusal to allow gay marriage sends a message of intolerance to technology and life-science companies he’d like to attract and puts the state at odds with the younger generation of innovators he wants to retain, Chafee said in an interview. He’s pressing the state Senate to follow the lower chamber, which on Jan. 24 approved a same-sex marriage bill.

“We are in intense competition with Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts,” said Chafee, a 59-year-old Republican- turned-independent, ticking off three nearby states where gays can wed. “We are all in the same economy. We have to have the same welcome mat at our door that our neighbors have.”

Every New England state except Rhode Island allows gay marriage, as do Iowa, Maryland, Washington and the District of Columbia. Gay-rights advocates in five others, including New Jersey and Delaware, are pushing similar legislation this year.

The notion that state gay marriage laws could be as important as more traditional selling points like housing and public transportation underscores growing levels of acceptance, according to the Washington-based National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

‘Brain drain’

The group points to 13 companies -- including EBay Inc., operator of the world’s largest online marketplace; Aetna Inc., the third-biggest U.S. health insurer; and Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. -- that joined a business coalition aimed at overturning a federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on the constitutionality of that law, the Defense of Marriage Act, in the term that ends in June.

“Top talent might not want to work in a state where they are not wanted,” said Justin Nelson, the president of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. “You can see a brain drain.”

The economic argument is “vastly overblown,” said Frank Schubert, the national political director for the National Organization for Marriage, a Washington-based group that fights same-sex marriage laws around the country.

“There is no substantive basis that I can see to suggest that enacting gay marriage is a true economic engine,” Schubert said in an interview.

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