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National debate on gay marriage returns to Rhode Island

In any other New England state, Chelsea Leyden could marry the woman she’s been with for more than two years. But not in Rhode Island. Leyden hopes this is the year that distinction disappears.

“I want to get married where I was born and raised,” said Leyden, of Cranston. “My family is here. I don’t want to have to go to Massachusetts.”

With gay marriage bills introduced in the state’s General Assembly and the House Speaker calling for a vote this month, Rhode Island again finds itself a battleground in the national debate over same-sex marriage. Supporters eager to capitalize on recent gains elsewhere in the nation tell The Associated Press they’re optimistic Rhode Island could be the next state to allow gay and lesbian couples to wed.

Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington passed gay marriage referendums last fall, electing to join Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and the District of Columbia in allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, voters rejected a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have prohibited gay marriage, the first time such a ballot question has failed in the United States.

The momentum has longtime supporters in Rhode Island feeling optimistic about their chances this year. “There’s a wave and we should ride it,” House Speaker Gordon Fox said the day after the November election. Fox has called for the House to vote on gay marriage before the month’s end.

Rhode Island state Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston, has sponsored gay marriage legislation during 11 legislative sessions. He was all smiles one day last week as he lobbied other House members to sign onto his bill as a co-sponsor.

“I started with this in 2003, so I know how long it’s taken,” Handy said. “I’m optimistic this year. I think the speaker’s initiative to do it sooner rather than later helps.”

Groups opposed to gay marriage are ready to play defense. Chris Plante, director of the state chapter of the National Organization for Marriage, said he expects a “hard battle.”

He said Fox “wouldn’t have called for a vote so soon if he wasn’t sure,” he said. Nonetheless, “this is not a done deal. We will put up a very strong fight in the House and if we’re not successful we still have a very strong fight in the Senate.”

It’s likely to be months before Handy knows whether his bill succeeded. While supporters like their chances in the House, the state Senate remains a challenge. Opposition to gay marriage in the Senate doomed the last attempt at passing gay marriage in Rhode Island in 2011. Instead, lawmakers instead voted to allow gay and lesbian couples to form civil unions granting the same state rights and benefits as marriage.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a gay marriage supporter, said he’s eager for Rhode Island to join the rest of New England in allowing gay marriage. He said he believes it’s not only the right thing to do but could help improve the state’s image and even its economy. He said he knows people, gay or straight, might elect to settle in another New England state because of the state’s policy towards gay marriage.

“We want to be very inclusive, welcoming everybody,” said Chafee, an independent. “And in particular (to the) creative, energetic people that so often are associated with the gay community.”

Rhode Island now recognizes gay marriages performed elsewhere because of an executive order Chafee signed last year. The state also allows same-sex couples to create civil unions, but so far few couples have signed up.

Some supporters worry the marriage legislation could get caught up in end-of-session negotiating between House and Senate leaders – not an uncommon fate for bills that are of high interest to one chamber’s leader but perhaps not the other.

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed opposes gay marriage but has said she expects the Senate Judiciary Committee to take up the measure anyway if and when it passes the House.

Whether the votes are there in the Senate to pass the bill is an open question eagerly debated in Statehouse hallways. The Senate has at least three new members that were backed by Fight Back RI, a political action committee created to aid candidates who back gay marriage in the state. Still, the Senate has never debated or voted on gay marriage.

It’s also possible that changes to the bill’s wording – or proposals to hold a referendum on gay marriage – could complicate the political wrangling.

“It’s tough for me to predict what a vote total will look like on the Senate floor,” said Sen. Dawson Hodgson, R-North Kingstown, a gay marriage supporter.

Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, said the Senate has more important issues to focus on this year. Metts opposes gay marriage on religious grounds and said his constituents have other concerns.

“They want to know about jobs, about the economy,” he said. “That’s where they want our focus.”

Lawmakers in Illinois are also expected to consider gay marriage legislation this year.

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