Update: Rhode Island governor signs marriage equality bill

Rhode Island is joining nine other states and the District of Columbia in allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.

At about 5:25 p.m. EST today (May 2), the Rhode Island General Assembly cast a final procedural vote for marriage equality. The tally was 56-15.

"This is a great day in Rhode Island, not just for the many Rhode Island families who will now get the recognition and equality that they so richly deserve, and not only for the thousands who have been fighting for decades for the dignity and rights of all citizens. It is also a wonderful day for the generations of future Rhode Islanders who may never know a time when some people didn’t have all the same rights as others, and who hopefully will grow up wondering how on earth that ever could have been the law," said House Speaker Gordon D. Fox, the first openly gay House Speaker in the country and a co-sponsor of the legislation every year that it has been introduced. 

Independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed the legislation into law at about 6:50 p.m. EST in an outdoor ceremony at the Statehouse.

Celebrants gathered on the steps outside the building to a disco soundtrack and saving rainbow and U.S. flags. The ceremony began with a performance by the Providence Gay Men's Chorus and an introduction of elected officials, including the congressional delegation from Rhode Island.

Chafee, addressing the crowd, thanked openly LGBT lawmakers who have campaigned for equality and praised the work of Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, the coalition that organized the volunteer door-to-door campaign this session.

Representatives took up final discussion of the bill shortly before 4:30 p.m., with a recommendation to pass the measure, which extends marriage rights to same-sex couples, provides for converting civil unions into marriages and guarantees protections for religious institutions.

The bill was moved and seconded, followed by some discussion, mostly praise for the way legislative leaders conducted hearings and moved the bill to the governor, including from opponents of the measure.

Considering the civil and thoughtful tone of the debates this session, Rep. Anastasia Williams called May 2 a "glorious, victorious day" for everyone.

The last speaker was openly gay state Rep. Frank Ferri, who said, "Happy Equality Day Rhode Island."

Hundreds gathered at the Statehouse to celebrate the new law, which had already passed the House in January and Senate in April.

“There have been so many words spoken about the importance of this legislation. Seventeen years worth of hearings. Seventeen years worth of stories from our friends, and neighbors, and family members, and constituents, talking about their lives, hopes, dreams, and love for their children or their partners. Today, at last, we can say that our state recognizes the validity of all of those stories, and the dignity, worth and love of all Rhode Island families,” said state Rep. Arthur Handy, who has introduced the legislation the past 11 years.

Openly lesbian Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush, the sponsor of the Senate bill, said, "Every generation has its calling and its chance to ease the pain of discrimination and to advance the human cause. Women’s liberation emboldened black liberation which spawned the yearning for gay liberation ... because deep down we do hold these truths to be self evident: that all people are created equal and that America’s promise is indeed for liberty and justice for all."

The other five New England states already have gay marriage, but bills that would have changed marriage laws in heavily Catholic Rhode Island sputtered for nearly 20 years until this year.

More gay marriage supporters were elected to the legislature last fall, and advocates mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign to pressure undecided lawmakers.

The first weddings will occur Aug. 1.

"Never again will a child in our state be told that the love they will someday share with their spouse will be treated as second-class," said Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, before the House's final vote on the issue. "Never again will a parent in our state experience the pain of watching their child be denied the freedom to marry the person they love. And never again will our state deny a loving same-sex couple the ability to protect one another when they need to most."

At the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT civil rights group, president Chad Griffin said, "The unprecedented momentum for marriage across the country continues, with Rhode Island becoming the first state of 2013 to say yes to marriage equality. As the Supreme Court deliberates the fundamental right to marry the person you love, these historic and bipartisan victories keep mounting and prove the country is ready for marriage equality."

In September, a WPRI poll of 501 likely voters in Rhode Island found that 56 percent of Rhode Islanders support same-gender marriage, and only 36 percent oppose it.

Passage of marriage equality in Rhode Island comes as lawmakers in Illinois, Delaware and Minnesota continue efforts to move equality bills this year.

Also, in late June, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on two marriage-related cases: Hollingsworth v. Perry challenges the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 and United States v. Windsor challenges the so-called Defense of Marriage Act.

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