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Topics In the News
Rhode Island Senate Votes for Marriage Equality 26-12
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 04/24/13
Last updated on: 04/25/13
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On April 24, 2013, on a 26-12 vote, the Rhode Island Senate passed legislation authorizing same-sex marriage. The state's House of Representatives passed similar legislation in January by a 51-19 margin. The bill will now return to the House, which must vote again because the Senate version contains small changes to the bill's religious exemptions. After the House ratifies the bill, it will be signed into law by Governor Lincoln Chafee, and Rhode Island will become the tenth U.S. state to extend equal marriage rights to same-sex couples.

All five Republican Senators voted in favor of marriage equality, while the Democratic Senators split 21 to 12. This is undoubtedly the first time that a marriage equality bill has received unanimous support from a state's Republican caucus.

The vote came after a two-hour debate in which an attempt to amend the bill to require a referendum on the question was rejected on a 28-10 vote. During the debate, many of the legislators told stories of their own evolution on the issue and paid homage to the chief Senate sponsor of the bill, Donna Nesselbush, who is openly lesbian.

Marriage equality legislation has been introduced in the Rhode Island legislature every year since 1997, but rarely made it out of committee. In 2011, after a long and contentious debate, the legislature approved a civil unions bill that conferred on same-sex couples the same rights and responsibilities afforded married heterosexual couples, but not the name marriage. However, civil unions proved unpopular, especially since couples could easily marry in neighboring states.

On May 14, 2012 Governor Chafee signed an executive order directing state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages performed out of state as legal and to treat gay and lesbian married couples the same as heterosexual married couples. The executive order codified the opinion handed down in 2007 by former Attorney General Patrick Lynch as to how the state should treat gay marriages from out-of-state.

For many years, marriage equality legislation was blocked by Roman Catholic legislators, including especially Senate President Teresa Pavia Weed. This year, however, while continuing to oppose the marriage equality bill, she agreed to allow it a fair hearing. Polls have shown very strong support for marriage equality in the state.

On April 23, the bill was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 7-4 margin after an alternate bill that would have put the issue to a popular vote was rejected on a 6-5 tally.

The openly gay Speaker of the House Gordon Fox has pledged that the House will complete its work on the bill quickly and send it on to Governor Chafee for his signature.

The law will take effect in August.

Following the vote, which was greeted by cheers in the rotunda, Governor Chafee issued a statement saying, "I am always proud to be a Rhode Islander, but never more so than today."

He continued, "After yesterday's Judiciary Committee vote, I expressed my hope that the full Rhode Island Senate would pass a bill that chooses tolerance and fairness over division and discrimination. In passing the Marriage Equality Act, they have done just that."

After thanking all who worked so hard for the victory, Governor Chafee concluded: "Pending the final vote by the House of Representatives, Rhode Island will no longer be an outlier in our region. We will have the welcome mat out. We will be open for business, and we will once again affirm our legacy as a place that is tolerant and appreciative of diversity."

Lee Swislow of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) also issued a statement celebrating the historic vote, particularly the achievement of marriage equality in all six New England states.

Swislow is particularly pleased that on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the Goodridge decision that brought marriage equality to Massachusetts, "New England is poised to be a marriage equality zone, a beacon of justice and fairness for the rest of our country. And the day will come when that equality zone encompasses all fifty states and the federal government."

Openly gay U.S. Representative David Cicilline, who as a state representative in 1997 introduced the very first marriage equality bill in the state legislature, also issued a statement upon news that the Senate had passed the legislation.

"Today, the Rhode Island Senate passed legislation ending discrimination against members of the LGBT community and guaranteeing that every Rhode Islander has access to marriage. I am grateful to the members of the Senate and thank them for making Rhode Island a fairer place," Cicilline said. He added, "Like many Rhode Islanders, I am very proud to have witnessed such a great day in the rich history of our state."

The video below, from the Providence Journal, reports on the vote and the debate.

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