House makes history, passes same-sex marriage legislation
The state House of Representatives voted 51-19 last week to allow same-sex couples to marry in Rhode Island.
The vote, which was celebrated with cheers by supporters, marks the first time either chamber in Rhode Island has voted on the issue since a same-sex marriage bill was first introduced in 1997.
“There are certain legislative votes that can fairly be characterized as historic. The Rhode Island House of Representatives’ overwhelming passage of marriage equality legislation is one such vote,” said Gov. Lincoln Chafee.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Arthur Handy, has introduced the bill for each of the last 11 years. He said the measure is about justice and equity for same-sex couples, but is also emotional and personal for so many who have worked for years for marriage equality.
“Obviously, this issue is about fairness and allowing all Rhode Islanders to have equal access to the rights and responsibilities that come with marriage, but marriage is about so much more than legal protections,” said Handy, who represents Cranston. “My wife and I have been married since 1997, and as we’ve worked together to raise our son, the value of having a committed, strong family has become more apparent to us over time. All Rhode Islanders deserve to enjoy that security and support, and deserve to have their family recognized as equal to others. It feels good to see how far we’ve come in Rhode Island toward valuing all families, and I know we are close to the day when marriage equality becomes law here.”
The bill had the sponsorship of 42 of the 75 members of Rhode Island’s House of Representatives, and won unanimous approval Jan. 22 from the House Judiciary Committee. House Speaker Gordon Fox was the bill’s first co-sponsor, and promised to bring it to a House vote early in the session, which began Jan. 1.
“I am thrilled that the House passed a true equality bill in the spirit of Roger Williams when he founded our state in 1636,” said Fox. “This legislation is about codifying the institution of marriage and making our families stronger, and it is ultimately about commitment and love. A large majority of the House members signaled their respect for the right of the gay community to be married. We are marching toward equality, and on a personal note as an openly gay man, I am tremendously proud of the House of Representatives. Separate can never be equal.”
Chafee, who last year signed an executive order requiring all state agencies to recognize samesex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, also supports the bill and has pledged to sign it if it emerges from the Senate.
“Although this vote is indeed historic, there is still a long way to go,” said Chafee. “Now that the House has swiftly acted, I urge Senate leadership to call the roll for our economy, for our gay and lesbian friends and neighbors, and for history.”
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, effective immediately upon adoption.
The bill also contains a provision that allows couples that entered into civil unions in Rhode Island to convert those unions to marriages, and automatically converts all remaining civil unions into marriages on Jan. 1, 2014. Rhode Island has allowed civil unions since July 2011, but relatively few have been performed.
U.S. Congressman David Cicilline, who represents Rhode Island’s first congressional district, was the lone member of the House Judiciary Committee that voted in favor of marriage equality in 2001.
“I congratulate Speaker Fox, Chairwoman Edie Ajello and all the members of the House who worked so hard to make this moment possible,” said Cicilline. “The Rhode Island House of Representatives has placed itself on the right side of history by formally acknowledging the dignity and value of relationships between committed and loving individuals of the same gender. I urge the members of the Senate to pass this bill and quickly send it to Gov. Chafee’s desk so that Rhode Island can join the rest of New England in guaranteeing that every citizen of our state has access to full marriage equality.”
The bill reiterates constitutionally guaranteed freedom for religious institutions to set their own guidelines for marriage eligibility within their faith, and stipulates 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.
Rhode Island is the only New England state that does not allow same-sex marriage. Currently nine states and Washington, D.C. allow same-sex couples to marry.
Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush. Sen. President Teresa Paiva Weed, who represents Jamestown and Newport, said she opposes the bill but promises a vote will be taken in her chamber.