Rhode Island took another step toward becoming the final state in New England to allow same-sex couples to marry on Thursday when the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a same-sex marriage bill.
The final count was 51 in the affirmative and 19 in the negative, with five members not in attendance for the vote.
“It was important that this House of Representatives stood and finally said we stand for equality, we stand for justice, we stand for tolerance in the shadow of our great founder Roger Williams,” said House Speaker Gordon Fox.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where a contentious battle is expected to unfold. Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, is an opponent of the bill, but she has indicated she will not block a vote out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick, is also vote against the legislation, but advocates say they are confident the committee will allow the bill to go before the full Senate.
Fox, who is openly gay, said he plans to speak to Paiva Weed regularly about the legislation and said he is isn’t concerned about the bill being held up until the House approves other pieces of legislation that the Senate may want passed.
“Just pass it,” he said.
Thursday’s vote came following 70 minutes of generally civil discussion on the House floor and was met with loud cheers from the several hundred supporters in attendance. For 23-year-old Kyle Marnane and 27-year-old Donny McKendall, both of Cranston, the passage was the culmination of years of lobbying to bring a same-sex marriage bill to a vote.
“This took a lot of hard work and a lot of momentum over the past couple of years so it was nice to see it all come together now in the House,” Marnane said.
The couple is planning to get married next year in Massachusetts, but said they’d like to get married in Rhode Island.
“The fact that now it’s come and we can see it coming is just so exciting,” McKendall said.
But not all lawmakers were pleased with the outcome of the vote. Rep. Doc Corvese, D-North Providence, delivered an 11-minute speech chastising those who support same-sex marriage. Corvese called the legislation an “irrevocable, societal game changer.” He predicted the bill will have trouble passing in the Senate.
“I think the absence of religious rights of conscience legislation will be noted by the Senate,” Corvese said.
Rep. Doreen Costa, who voted in favor of the legislation in Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee meeting, voted against the bill Thursday. She said she plans to submit a letter of opposition with 7,500 signatures to Senate.
“It had its day today,” Costa said. “It is what it is.”
Other lawmakers said they put their religious views aside to vote in favor of the bill. House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, admitted that as recently as three years ago, he didn’t support same-sex marriage. But he said his change of heart came because he believes that marriages are public contracts and “everyone is entitled to equal protection under the law.”
“I’ve given a lot of thought over the past three years and I finally came to conclusion that you have to separate your personal religious viewpoints from the needs of society at large,” Mattiello said.
Nine states and Washington D.C. currently allow same-sex couples to marry. In 2011, Rhode Island lawmakers approved a bill that allows gay couples to enter into civil unions, but critics say an amendment that allows religious institutions to not recognize the law has stopped couples from seeking civil unions.
Last September, a WPRI 12 poll found that 56.3% of registered voters support legalizing same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, with 36% opposed and 7.8% unsure.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who last year signed an executive order recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages, called the vote a “significant step forward.” He called on the Senate to pass the legislation.
“Although this vote is indeed historic, there is still a long way to go, now that the House has swiftly acted, I urge Senate leadership to ‘call the roll’ – for our economy, for our gay and lesbian friends and neighbors, and for history,” Chafee said.
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