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Rhode Island Senate approves marriage-equality bill

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The Rhode Island Senate voted 26-12 today to pass the marriage-equality bill, 17 years after the first such bill was introduced by lawmakers in the state.

The Senate’s president, Teresa Paiva Weed, a Democrat who opposes same-sex marriage, was praised for allowing her colleagues to vote on the marriage-equality bill. At one point during today's debate, she asked for someone to encourage less celebration from visitors listening in the Rotunda, just outside the chamber, who were cheering marriage supporters as they spoke. Their muffled roars could also be heard on the live streaming event and TV telecasts.

Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush, co-sponsor of the bill and a lesbian, invoked the memories of Stonewall and Harvey Milk in urging passage. "Today's vote culminates nearly a half century of struggle by the gay community," she said. "This chapter [in Rhode Island] begin in 1997, when the first marriage bills were introduced."

Nesselbush drew laughter when she noted that she wore a dress today, illustrating how important this vote was to her. "Of all the bills I will ever sponsor, this will be the bill that will have the most impact on my life," she said. "... I am deeply grateful to my Republican brothers for their unanimous support from across the aisle."

GOP Sen. Dawson Hodgson stood in favor of marriage equality and noted that his three other Republican Senators would vote in favor of the bill.

Sen. Jamie Doyle shared how he has evolved on the issue of marriage equality, saying "Same-sex couples should be able to marry and have the same rights as others."

The opposition included Sen. Harold M. Mitts, who ranted for a lengthy amount of time and quoted passages from the Old Testament and New Testament. His anti-gay preaching showed his homophobia and bigotry. He also bragged about overwhelmingly defeating a gay Latino Republican in the last election.

Sen. Frank A. Ciccone III, another outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage, introduced an amendment to require a referendum so voters could decide marriage equality. He had attempted to get the amendment passed in the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, but failed. Several Senators stood to oppose putting the rights of a minority group to the vote of the majority. Ciccone's amendment was voted down 28-10.

On Jan. 24, the Rhode Island House voted 51-19 to approve the marriage-equality bill. The House is led by Speaker Gordon Fox, who is openly gay. And today, state Rep. Frank Ferri and his husband attended the Senate vote, waving to supporters in the gallery that was packed with marriage-equality supporters. Before the Senate session began, gallery members applauded pro-gay politicians who entered the chamber and chanted slogans, creating a pep rally atmosphere.

The bill will now go back to the House for approval, since the Senate tinkered with some language of the measure to protect religious freedoms. That vote is considered a shoo-in, however.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an Independent, has promised to sign the bill into law. If this happens, gay and lesbian couples would be allowed to get married in Rhode Island, starting July 1, 2013.

Rhode Island legalized civil unions for gay and lesbian couples last year, but gay rights groups and their allies were disappointed that Rhode Island remained the only New England state without marriage equality and pushed for S38.

Marriage equality has been legalized in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, New Zealand (later this year) Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Uruguay (later this year) and parts of the United States, Mexico and Brazil.

In Mexico, same-sex marriage is available in the Federal District (Mexico City) and in the states of Oaxaca and Quintana Roo. The marriages are recognized nationwide by Supreme Court order.

In Brazil, same-sex marriage is legal in the states of Alagoas, Bahia and São Paulo. Elsewhere in Brazil, same-sex couples can enter into a "stable union" then go before a judge and convert the union into a full marriage.

In the United States, same-sex marriage is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island (July 1, 2013), Vermont and Washington -- and in Washington, D.C. It also is legal within the Coquille Indian tribe in Oregon, the Suquamish Indian tribe in Washington state and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians in Michigan.

To read SDGLN Editor in Chief Ken Williams' story about the House vote and to watch a video, click HERE.

The immediate reaction

Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry:

“New England is now complete. Through court rulings, legislative action, and wins at the ballot, loving and committed couples from Bangor to Burlington, Providence to Portland, and Cambridge to Concord will soon be able to join in the freedom to marry.

“Freedom to Marry is proud to be a lead partner in Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, the advocacy campaign that led this year’s effort. We’d like to thank the leadership of our partners in the work, especially Marriage Equality Rhode Island and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, both of which have worked for years to bring about this victory. Thank you to House Speaker Gordon Fox, House bill sponsor Art Handy, Senate bill sponsor Donna Nesselbush, and the Senate GOP Caucus, which voted unanimously in favor of the freedom to marry legislation.”

Cathy Marino-Thomas, Marriage Equality USA board co-president:

"The freedom to marry is sweeping the nation, as Rhode Island becomes the 10th state in the union with marriage for all, in the same week that France became the 14th nation worldwide with equal marriage rights. The momentum from coast-to-coast and around the world is unstoppable."

Brian Silva, Marriage Equality USA executive director:

"Marriage Equality USA members and partners contributed almost 1000 hours over the last few months to contribute to making this campaign successful through weekend canvassing trips and weekly phone banks. Collectively they made almost 7000 phone calls and knocked on over 2000 doors in the key districts we needed to win!"

John Lewis, Marriage Equality USA legal director:

"At the same time we celebrate this historic win we are closely watching key states like Delaware and Nevada, in addition to several other nations, as the global movement for equality continues. The timing couldn't be better, as these historic changes lead up to the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions in the Prop. 8 and DOMA cases in June."

Michael Keegan, president of People For the American Way:

“Today marks an important step forward and a powerful victory for all Rhode Island families. As Rhode Island moves toward becoming the tenth state to allow same-sex couples to marry, the growing momentum for marriage equality nationwide is undeniable. Lawmakers in Rhode Island have come to see what people all over the country understand – that preventing same-sex couples from getting married brings serious harm to women and men in loving, committed relationships.”

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.

Photo caption

Rhode Island Equality tweeted the photo at the left of their supporters packing the gallery of the Rhode Island Senate chamber.