Rhode Island senators voted 26-12 at about 5:45 p.m. EST on April 24 for a bill that would make their state the 10th in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage.
A marriage bill passed the House in January, but a procedural vote is needed because of slight changes to the legislation made by the Senate.
The bill then would need only the signature of independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee – and that’s not a problem. So same-sex couples likely will begin marrying in August.
“With the historic passage of the marriage bill in the state Senate today, Rhode Island’s committed and loving gay and lesbian couples are on the cusp of equality,” said Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin. “On the heels of November's perfect sweep for marriage, our win today reaffirms that momentum is truly on our side. Making today’s victory especially meaningful is the fact that all of the Senate Republicans stood on the right side of history, voting in favor of marriage equality."
The Senate vote came on April 24, the day after the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill and following the announcement that the Senate’s Republican caucus supported the measure.
Chafee, before the Senate vote, said in a statement, “I believe that when the roll is called, marriage equality will become law in Rhode Island.”
Debate began at about 4:30 p.m., Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush, the bill’s sponsor, moved passage of the marriage equality bill, citing years of discrimination against gays.
Nesselbush, who is openly gay, recognized the first sponsors of marriage equality bills in 1997, thanked Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed for allowing the bill to reach the floor despite her opposition to the measure.
The measure removes from Rhode Island law gender-specific language in regards to eligibility for marriage, reiterates the constitutional guarantee for religious institutions to set their own guidelines for marriage eligibility and stipulates that clergy or others authorized to perform marriages are not obligated by law to officiate at any particular civil marriage or religious rite of marriage.
The measure states that a religious organization and any nonprofit institution operated, supervised or controlled by a religious or fraternal organization shall not be required to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods or privileges to an individual if they are related to “the solemnization of marriage or the celebration of a marriage in violation of their religious beliefs and faith.”
Also, the measure states that civil unions can be converted into marriages and that no civil unions will no longer be available.
While the measure swiftly moved through the state Legislature this year, a marriage bill has been introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly for the past 20 years. Opposition, largely from the Catholic Church, made Rhode Island the only state in the New England where same-sex couples could not marry.
On April 22, the Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, issued a statement urging senators to vote down the equality bill.
He stated, “I once again urge members of the Senate to stand strong in resisting this immoral and unnecessary proposition and to defend marriage and family as traditionally defined. We should be very clear about this: it is only with grave risk to our spiritual well-being and the common good of our society that we dare to redefine what God himself has created. My prayer is that the senators will have all the wisdom and courage they need to do the right thing in this moment of decision.”
But a number of senators during the debate spoke about their pride in being Catholics and their pride in being supporters of equality.
Responding moments after the vote, Chuck Wolfe of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, said, "This was the last big hurdle to allowing gay and lesbian Rhode Islanders the freedom to marry the person they love."
Wolfe, whose group works to elect openly LGBT candidates to office, also observed that all four of the state's openly gay and lesbian lawmakers fought hard for passage.
Ray Sullivan of Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, in an email appeal for continued support, said, "When we started this campaign a few months ago, no one thought we’d get to this day. No one thought we could pass marriage equality in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and certainly no one believed we’d pass marriage in both chambers of the General Assembly."
Gay marriage is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. A marriage equality bill passed in the Delaware House on April 23 and Illinois representatives could vote on marriage equality next week – the Senate already has approved a bill.
"The freedom to marry is sweeping the nation," said Cathy Marino-Thomas of Marriage Equality USA. "The momentum from coast-to-coast and around the world is unstoppable."