Rep. Deb Ruggiero: ‘A very, very different world’
With a stroke of the governor’s pen last week, marriage equality finally became law in Rhode Island. The bill signing ended an 11- year struggle to legalize same-sex marriage. Rhode Island became the 10th state in the country to recognize marriage equality, and the last of the New England states to do so.
“Today, Rhode Island is making history,” Chafee said at a ceremony May 2 on the State House steps. “We are living up to the ideals of our founders who believed so deeply in the words etched behind me in marble: ‘To hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained.’”
Chafee had announced his determination to pass marriage- equality legislation in his 2011 inaugural address.
Prior to the ceremony, the House of Representatives passed a bill that was similar to the one that was passed overwhelmingly in January. The second vote by the House was required because the Senate had made slight changes to the legislation before approving it by a wide margin. The final vote in the House was 56-15, and it marked the end of a journey that had begun more than a decade ago when Rep. Arthur Handy of Cranston first introduced a marriage- equality bill in the House.
State Rep. Deb Ruggiero, a Jamestown resident, was a leader in the marriage-equality movement.
She made an impassioned speech on the House floor moments before the final vote.
“This law does not take anything away from a heterosexual couple,” said Ruggiero, who is one of four openly gay lawmakers in the General Assembly. “Nothing is going to change. But tomorrow morning, for gay and lesbian couples, it’s going to be a very, very different world.”
Ruggiero, along with Handy, House Speaker Gordon Fox, Rep. Frank Ferri, Sen. Donna Nesselbush and Congressman David Cicilline, was among those singled out by political leaders for their efforts over the years.
Ruggiero said that Handy, a straight man with a wife and child, had been putting a marriage equality bill forward for 11 years because he wanted to make sure everyone had the same rights as he had. That included the right to marry and the ability to pursue their dreams.
“Every single person will have the right to legal marriage, tax equity and hospital visitation,” Ruggiero said. “It’s not only a civil rights issue, it’s an economic issue. This was a vote for love, respect and human decency. It was a vote to spread joy, and who doesn’t want love and joy in their life?”
According to Ruggiero, passage of the bill was never in question. It was just a matter of when it would pass. She said that public opinion has shifted rapidly on marriage equality in the last few years – even President Barack Obama had evolved. He mentioned the issue in his re-election inauguration.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” he said.
Said Ruggiero, “A lot of people who you talked to three or four years ago wouldn’t be open to it, but all of a sudden it was a thousand acts of courage.”
In the past, same-sex couples who built a life together were liable for estate taxes when one of the partners died. The surviving partner often had to pay thousands of dollars to the state to remain in the house the couple had occupied. This is not the case for married couples. Ruggiero said this is one of the issues remedied by the new legislation.
“This state was founded on tolerance and religious freedom,” she said.
Ruggiero also pointed out the bill provides protection for religious organizations that do not want to recognize same-sex marriage. Institutions can choose not to marry same-sex couples in the same way some will not marry people of other religions or divorced people. Those protections are already provided under secular law, and nothing will change as a result of the new legislation.
“There are some very good religious protections in this bill,” Ruggiero said. “At the same time this law will allow a number of religious institutions that very much want to help same-sex couples, people in a very loving, committed relationship, to be recognized.”
Sen. President Teresa Paiva Weed, whose district includes Jamestown, was an outspoken opponent of the marriage-equality bill. Despite her personal opposition, she pledged that if the bill got out of committee in the Senate, she would allow it to come to the Senate floor for a full vote. She lived up to her commitment, and won praise from lawmakers, including Ruggiero, for her actions.
“I have a great deal of respect for Sen. President Paiva Weed,” Ruggiero said. “I am so pleased that she allowed democracy to occur in our state.”
Mary Meagher, vice president of the Jamestown Town Council, said she was delighted with the legislation. Meagher also acknowledged the positive impact that the new law is likely to have on the state’s economy.
“I think that whenever you’re fair, you’re going to attract intelligent and fair-minded people,” Meagher said. “When you create a community where people feel comfortable and safe, and feel like they’re treated appropriately, I think that will have a positive economic impact.”
Meagher said when her own partner passed away, her partner’s parents had to sign forms so she could be cremated. A trust had to be created so that probate could be avoided. Meagher said the new law would address those issues.