Marriage bill introduced in Rhode Island

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Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee has said he will sign a gay marriage bill.

The long debate over gay marriage in Rhode Island intensified Jan. 2 with lawmakers in both the House and Senate finalizing legislation that would allow same-sex couples to wed. The bill was filed in the House on Jan. 3 in the only New England state where gay marriage is not legal.

Rhode Island Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston, spent Jan. 2 asking lawmakers to co-sponsor his marriage bill. Democratic Sen. Joshua Miller said legislation should be introduced in the Senate as well. House Speaker Gordon Fox, a Democrat, has said he hopes to call a vote on the issue in the House by the end of the month.

Handy has sponsored gay marriage legislation in 11 sessions – only to see the bill perish in committee or fail to come up for a vote. In 2011, Fox dropped gay marriage legislation after he concluded it couldn't pass the Senate. Handy said he's optimistic this year, but acknowledges that many of his peers still oppose allowing gays to marry in the state.

"For some people, this is not a small thing to consider," Handy said about opponents. "And it's such a big thing for those that want it.''

For many lawmakers, the marriage question is a personal one. Fox is gay and stood next to his partner, Marcus LaFond, when he took his oath of office Tuesday, the session's opening day.

The battle might be decided in the Senate, where Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, a Democrat, remains opposed to gay marriage. She has said she expects the bill to get a vote – at least in the Senate Judiciary Committee – if it passes the House.

Another opponent, Democratic Sen. Harold Metts, pulls out a pocket Bible when asked why he opposes gay marriage. He turns to a verse in the Book of Matthew that defines marriage in heterosexual terms.

"It's very clear to me," he said. "Marriage is between a man and a woman."

The House Judiciary Committee will likely hold an extensive public hearing on the legislation once Fox appoints members to the panel. Previous hearings stretched long into the night and attracted hundreds of gay couples, conservative religious leaders and others on both sides of the issue.

A marriage equality bill introduced in Illinois passed the Senate Executive Committee on Jan. 3 and will be taken up again after the new legislature is sworn into office on Jan. 9.