Rhode Island House passes gay marriage measure

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

UPDATED: The Rhode Island House of Representatives on Jan. 24 approved a bill to legalize civil marriage for same-sex couples in the state.

The bill arrived to the House with 42 of the 75 members signed on as sponsors, including House Speaker Gordon D. Fox, who pledged to make the bill’s passage a priority this year.

The vote in the House was 51-19.

“Today’s victory belongs to the thousands of marriage supporters like you around the state,” Ray Sullivan, campaign director for the Rhode Islanders United for Marriage coalition, said in a statement to backers. “You helped elect a pro-equality majority in the House, you helped make the case to lawmakers, you helped pass the bill out of committee, and we passed marriage equality in the House together.”

He added, “The House vote today is a clear signal that momentum is on our side and ever-growing.”

U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, a gay Democrat from Rhode Island, said in a statement, “Tonight, 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 Governor (Lincoln) 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.”

Before the vote, proponents and opponents of the bill rallied outside the Capitol. After the vote, there were cheers and boos in the House.

The marriage bill has been introduced in every session since 1997, and state Rep. Arthur Handy, D- Cranston, has led the fight since he joined the House.

“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,” Handy said after the House vote. “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.”

Fox, who is the first openly gay person to serve as leader of the House, said the vote was an important and historic move toward genuine equality.

“I am thrilled that the House passed a true equality bill in the spirit of Roger Williams when he founded our state in 1636,” Fox said. “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 today 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.”

The bill would remove from Rhode Island’s marriage law gender-specific language that prohibits same-sex couples from marrying. The bill contains a provision for converting civil unions in the state to marriages. It also guarantees freedom for religious institutions to set guidelines for marriage eligibility within their faith.

Both sides agree that the real challenge is in the Rhode Island Senate, where President Teresa Paiva Weed is an opponent of the legislation.

But, Sullivan said, “Today we proved to Rhode Island – and the nation – what years of dedication, coalition building, and thoughtful dialogue can accomplish. With your help, we’ll carry this momentum into the Senate and pass a marriage bill this year.”

If the bill goes to the governor, who has indicated an eagerness to sign it, Rhode Island would become the last New England state to legalize same-sex marriage.

A poll conducted in September found 56 percent of Rhode Island voters support legalizing gay marriage.

In other news, legislation to legalize gay marriage was introduced in Hawaii on Jan. 24.

The Human Rights Campaign, announcing the introduction of the marriage bill in Hawaii, noted, that this year marks the 20th anniversary of Baehr v. Lewin, the Hawaii State Supreme Court opinion that sparked a national marriage equality movement. In the opinion, Justice Steven Levinson said, “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor be denied the equal protection of the laws, nor be denied the enjoyment of the person’s civil rights or be discriminated against in the exercise thereof because of race, religion, sex or ancestry.”