PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Same-sex marriage will be legal in Rhode Island starting Aug. 1 after the R.I. House of Representatives gave final approval to the legislation Thursday, thrilling supporters who've been pushing the issue at the State House for 16 years.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed the bill into law at a ceremony on the South Steps of the State House Thursday evening, where he was joined by Rhode Island's congressional delegation, state lawmakers and advocates for same-sex marriage. Hundreds of people of all ages gathered on the lawn to watch the event.
"Today we are making history," Chafee, who has backed same-sex marriage since he was a Republican U.S. senator, told the crowd. "I am proud to say that now, at long last, you are free to marry the person you love."
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House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is openly gay and who pushed the bill through the legislature, choked back tears as he described the long effort to win passage and thanked his partner of 15 years, Marcus LaFond, for his support.
"We're not going to be talking about same-sex marriage anymore - we're going to be talking about marriage," Fox said. LaFond told WPRI.com that when he and Fox first started dating, "I don't think we believed that this would be a reality." He said he was heartened by the support the bill received from straight couples.
The House voted 56-15 Thursday afternoon to give final approval to the bill after a respectful and at times emotional discussion. The result - seen as a foregone conclusion after the bill cleared the Rhode Island Senate last week on a 26-12 vote - was met with huge applause and a group singing of "My Country 'Tis of Thee."
"Today a dream has come true," state Rep. Frank Ferri, D-Warwick, who is openly gay, said to a standing ovation. "This moment is surreal. For us in Rhode Island, we have achieved an understanding about the human condition - that we all are one family and need to look out for each other."
Fox had tears in his eyes off and on throughout the House debate, which drew the attention of media outlets from outside Rhode Island. A sizable crowd gathered on the floor of the chamber and in the galleries to watch the House proceedings and gave standing ovations to a number of lawmakers after their speeches.
"What we are doing today is a triumph of tolerance," said state Rep. Spencer Dickinson, D-South Kingstown.
Two Republicans joined 54 Democrats to vote in favor of the bill: House Minority Leader Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, and Rep. Patricia Morgan, R-West Warwick. All five members of the Rhode Island Senate's Republican caucus backed the bill last week.
Speaking for the bill's opponents, state Rep. Arthur Corvese thanked Fox for conducting the debate "with a great deal amount of fairness."
Corvese, D-North Providence, said he opposes allowing same-sex marriage because it defies "the common good, common sense and the natural law" and warned that legalization could have "incalculable and unforeseeable ramifications on our children."
State Rep. Samuel Azzinaro, D-Westerly, added: "I don't feel we or I have the authority to redefine the word marriage."
Rhode Island was the only state in New England where same-sex marriage was illegal until Thursday. It now becomes the 10th state in the country to allow gays to wed. A WPRI 12 poll last year found 56% of Rhode Island voters favored legalizing same-sex marriage, with 36% opposed.
Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence Thomas Tobin released a pastoral letter on Thursday saying he was "profoundly disappointed" about the same-sex marriage bill becoming law, and warning Catholics to "examine their consciences very carefully" before going to the weddings of local gays and lesbians.
The Senate's same-sex marriage legislation includes more expansive protections for religious groups than a different version of the bill that passed the House back in January by an overwhelming margin, though some opponents argued it should have provided exemptions for individuals, as well.
Same-sex marriage bills have been introduced in Rhode Island repeatedly since 1997 but had always died in committee until this year. The last major drive to legalize gay weddings in Rhode Island failed in 2011, leading to the creation of civil unions, which drew little support from same-sex marriage advocates. Civil unions will be eliminated once same-sex marriages start being allowed in August.
The Senate was long seen as a roadblock to same-sex marriage in Rhode Island because of opposition from its socially conservative Democratic leadership. But the House's landslide vote in January, followed by a relentless advocacy campaign by supporters, increased the pressure on Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed to allow a vote despite her personal opposition to same-sex marriage.
Fox praised Paiva Weed, D-Newport, for allowing the bill to pass over her own opposition, telling the crowd at Thursday's signing ceremony that doing so is "scary" for the leader of a legislative chamber, who fears losing his or her authority. Ferri added: "The Senate president kept her word, and I thank her for that."
Paiva Weed was at the State House on Thursday but didn't attend the signing ceremony, an aide said.
U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who defeated Chafee in a hotly contested 2006 U.S. Senate race, went out of his way to praise his former rival on Thursday.
"I'm proud of our state for taking this important step toward equality for all, and I want to particularly congratulate Governor Chafee on an historic legislative victory," Whitehouse said in a statement. "His staunch support - along with the work of Speaker Fox and his allies in the legislature, and the grassroots efforts of the LGBT community - made this great day possible for Rhode Island."
Human Rights Campaign, the national gay-rights group that provided logistical and financial support for advocates in Rhode Island, said 50 million Americans now live in states where same-sex marriage is legal. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule by next month on major cases revolving around gay marriage.
"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," Chad Griffin, president of Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement.
The National Organization for Marriage Rhode Island condemned the new law as shortsighted and dangerous to people with religious beliefs that don't allow same-sex marriage.
"Redefining marriage into a gender-less institution to satisfy the demands of a small but politically powerful group is shortsighted policy that fails to take into account the rights and needs of the generations to come," Christopher Plante, the group's regional director, said in a statement. He added: "The full impact may not be seen next week or next year, but our children will be the ones who pay the price for this decision."
Ray Sullivan, campaign director for the advocacy group Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, saw it differently.
"This is truly a proud day for Rhode Island," Sullivan said. "Governor Chafee's signature on this historic marriage equality legislation ensures that all families are recognized, valued and respected equally under the law."
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