2013-01-10 / News

Vote on gay marriage could soon hit House floor

Legislation to allow same-gender couples to marry in Rhode Island was introduced Jan. 3 in both chambers, with a pledge from House Speaker Gordon Fox for a floor vote early in the session.

The legislation has broad support, with 42 members of the House signing on as sponsors and 11 members of the Senate. Rep. Deb Ruggiero, Jamestown and Middletown’s openly gay House representative, is among the sponsors.

“We are long overdue,” said Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Dist. 18, Cranston). “Rhode Island, the colony founded on the principle of personal liberty, is now the only New England state that doesn’t allow same-gender couples equal marriage. Rhode Islanders recognize that same-gender couples deserve the rights and responsibilities that other couples already enjoy, and support has been getting wider every year. We know this can pass the House this year, and we know that Gov. Chafee will sign it if we get it to him. This bill is about ending discrimination and creating true equality for all Rhode Islanders, [and it] promotes family stability and affords plentiful protection for religious freedom. For the sake of all of those families who hang in the balance, we need marriage equality now.”

Handy is the lead sponsor in the House, and has introduced the bill annually for more than a decade.

Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush, a second-term senator who is openly gay, is taking the lead in the Senate this year after the retirement of the perennial Senate sponsor Rhoda Perry.

“After many years, I have finally found the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with, the woman I want to marry,” said Nesselbush (D-Dist. 15, Pawtucket). “We are both spiritual and want to deepen and strengthen our devotion. We are deeply in love, and are hoping and praying for marriage equality so we can tie the knot. But this is not about me or us. This is about the thousands of loving gay and lesbian couples who want and deserve the right to marry. I take my work and my civic responsibilities very seriously, and it’s ironic that I am qualified to be the chief judge of the city of Pawtucket and a state senator, but somehow not qualified to marry. If my conservative father were alive, even he would say, ‘That’s just plain wrong and there ought to be a law.’ I implore my colleagues to join me in casting a vote on the right side of history. ... The train has left the station. Marriage equality is inevitable. Young people cannot even understand why this is an issue. A crescendo is building, and most Rhode Islanders want us to enact marriage equality.”

Fox, who is also gay, is the first cosponsor listed on the House bill. He has indicated he is interested in bringing it before the full House for a vote early in the session. A vote is expected in the Senate Judiciary Committee if the vote passes the House. The legislation, which will be assigned to each chamber’s respective judiciary committee, has never previously come out of committee for a vote on the floor of either chamber.

“Senate President Paiva Weed has honorably promised that there will be a vote on the issue, and with nine states, the District of Columbia and the president of the United States all embracing marriage equality, we have never been closer,” said Nesselbush.

The legislation removes genderspecifi c language from the section of the general laws that governs eligibility for marriage. It inserts language that allows any person to marry any other eligible person, regardless of gender.

Additionally, it includes language stating that marriage is recognized by the state to promote stable relationships and provide important legal protections to couples and their immediate and extended families.

The bill reiterates constitutionally guaranteed freedom for religious institutions to set their own guidelines for marriage eligibility within their faith, and stipulation that under no circumstances will clergy or others authorized to perform marriages be obligated by law to officiate at any particular civil marriage or religious rite of marriage.

“Regarding religious freedom, no religious organization should or will be required to perform a wedding that is contrary to their faith,” said Handy. “At the same time, no faith that does support marriages between people of the same gender should be barred from performing them either. Our current law is actually violating their religious freedom.”

Rhode Island passed a law in 2011 allowing civil unions for same-gender couples as a compromise measure, but relatively few have taken advantage of it, and many have criticized civil unions as a less-than-equal offering to same-gender couples.

In September, a WPRI poll of 501 likely voters in Rhode Island found that 56 percent of Rhode Islanders support same-gender marriage, and only 36 percent oppose it.

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