PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Rhode Island moved another step closer to legalizing same-sex marriage on Tuesday as a key legislative panel approved a bill that would allow gays and lesbians to wed in the state.
The 10-member Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-4 to pass a reworked bill sponsored by Sen. Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, and favored by advocates of same-sex marriage. The 11th vote was cast by Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, D-Providence, who used his optional right to vote ex officio.
The Senate bill would allow gay weddings in Rhode Island beginning on Aug. 1.
- In-Depth: How Senate shifted on gay marriage
- PDF: Read the bill passed by Senate Judiciary
- Votes: See how your local lawmaker voted
Senate leaders didn't waste time in scheduling a vote by the full chamber. The 38 senators will vote Wednesday on Nesselbush's same-sex marriage bill during a session that will start at 4 p.m., Senate spokesman Greg Pare told WPRI.com after the committee vote.
The seven votes Tuesday in favor of gay marriage came from Sens. Stephen Archambault, William Conley, Dawson Hodgson, Nesselbush, Leo Raptakis, Paul Jabour and Erin Lynch. The votes against came from Ruggerio, Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael McCaffrey, and Sens. Frank Lombardi and Harold Metts.
A large crowd of supporters in the audience for the hearing gave the committee members a standing ovation after the vote. They also voted 6-5 to reject a bill sponsored by Sen. Frank Ciccone, D-Providence, that would call a voter referendum on same-sex marriage; Conley switched voting blocs on that question.
Advocates gird for Wednesday vote
"This is an incredible and historic step forward in the campaign to ensure all loving, committed couples in Rhode Island have the freedom to marry," Ray Sullivan, campaign director for the group Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, said in a statement. He suggested there is now "momentum to achieve victory on this critical issue."
"We believe that when a vote is called, we can win," Sullivan said.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, urged senators to reject the bill on Wednesday and called again for a referendum. "Marriage has served Rhode Island well since statehood and policymakers should not act unilaterally to redefine this foundational institution of society," he said.
McCaffrey, who is widely seen as a possible successor to Paiva Weed as leader of the Senate Democrats, was sanguine about the outcome. "I'm satisfied with the process," he said.
House could pass next week
The R.I. House of Representatives already voted 51-19 on Jan. 24 to legalize same-sex marriage in the state, approving a different bill sponsored by Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston.
If the full Senate approves the amended bill Wednesday it will then be sent to the House Judiciary Committee for a hearing next week, possibly as early as Tuesday, House spokesman Larry Berman told WPRI.com.
If the House Judiciary Committee and then the full House both approve the Senate version of the same-sex marriage bill, it could be on Gov. Lincoln Chafee's desk for his signature as soon as late next week, though Berman declined to specify the time frame.
Chafee is a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage, which has received majority support from Rhode Islanders in multiple opinion surveys. Asked Tuesday about the impact of legalization, Chafee quoted economist Richard Florida as saying that successful economies should be built on "three Ts - technology, talent and tolerance."
Gov sees 'island of inequality'
Rhode Island is the only state in New England where same-sex marriage remains illegal. The last major drive to legalize gay weddings in the state failed in 2011, leading to the creation of civil unions, which drew little support from same-sex marriage advocates.
"Rhode Island currently stands as an island of inequality in our region," Chafee said in a statement after the committee vote. "At this time of intense economic competition, we cannot afford to lag behind our New England neighbors and New York in this important area." He called on Rhode Islanders to contact their senators and ask them to vote for the bill.
Tuesday's affirmative vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee is a major shift by Rhode Island's upper chamber, which had previously been a bulwark of opposition to same-sex marriage. Supporters have engaged in a relentless campaign over the last three months to convince wavering senators to back the Nesselbush bill.
Rhode Islanders United for Marriage said its volunteers "have knocked more than 25,000 doors, made more than 12,000 phone calls, had 24,511 conversations with their fellow Rhode Islanders ... and delivered 1,631 constituent letters supporting marriage equality legislation" since January.
Republicans unite in support
While Democrats hold a 32-5 majority in the Senate, three of the party's leaders - Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed of Newport, Majority Leader Ruggerio and Judiciary Committee Chairman McCaffrey of Warwick - are all opposed to gay marriage.
By contrast, the Senate's five-member Republican caucus announced their unanimous support for the same-sex marriage legislation earlier Tuesday. The top Republican in the House, Minority Leader Brian Newberry, also voted in favor of same-sex marriage in January.
"This is a game changer," Chad Griffin, president of the national gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement after the Senate GOP's announcement. "Never before has an entire legislative caucus - much less a Republican caucus - unanimously backed marriage equality legislation."
"Our lawmakers in Washington and across the country should look to Rhode Island today as an example of what true leadership looks like," Griffin added.
Religious protections, no civil unions
The Senate Judiciary Committee's bill includes stronger protections for those who oppose same-sex marriage because of their religious beliefs than the House-passed legislation does, saying: "No court or other state or local governmental body, entity, agency or commission shall compel, prevent, or interfere in any way with any religious institution's decisions about marriage eligibility within that particular faith's tradition."
That language won partial praise from the Rhode Island Catholic Conference, which said it "is appreciative that exemptions for religious organizations were included in the bill that was passed out of committee." The group added: "Unfortunately, the exemptions fail to protect individuals and small businesses who believe that marriage is a union of one man and one woman."
Civil unions would be eliminated once same-sex marriage takes effect under the terms of the Nesselbush bill, she said. Couples who are currently in a civil union would have the option to convert their status into marriage.
The text of the legislation also makes various tweaks to make the state's marriage law gender-neutral, such as replacing the words "bride and groom" with "parties" and the words "man or woman" with "person."
The Senate Judiciary Committee also voted 7-4 Tuesday to pass a version of Rep. Handy's bill amended to be identical to Nesselbush's, a procedural step that's required under General Assembly rules in order for a law to have sponsors in both the House and the Senate.
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