Rhode Island Marriage Law Signed; More States Could Vote Next Week (Updated)

Rhode Island House of Representatives’ Speaker, Gordon Fox (D)
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Rhode Island House of Representatives’ Speaker, Gordon Fox (D)

Rhode Island House of Representatives’ Speaker, Gordon Fox (D)

By: Lisa Keen/Keen News Service—

Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee signed a marriage equality bill into law this evening (May 2), just an hour after the state House gave the measure its final procedural approval. Two more states could approve marriage for same-sex couples next week.

In Rhode Island, Chafee’s signature seals the state’s position as the tenth state to provide same-sex couples with the same right to marriage licenses as male-female couples. Rhode Island is also the fourth state to do so in the past six months.

Next up is a similar bill in Delaware, due to get its final vote Tuesday (May 7). The bill passed the Senate’s Executive Committee May 1 and is expected to get its final vote Tuesday on the Senate floor, where Democrats have a two-to-one majority. The bill has already cleared the House, on April 23 by a vote of 23 to 18. And Democratic Governor Jack Markell says he supports the measure and hopes it will pass this year.

[pullquote]“Tomorrow, gay and lesbian couples in Rhode Island are going to wake up to a different world.” [/pullquote] And Illinois is also poised to take a final vote on its marriage equality bill, perhaps as soon as next Tuesday. The state House is expected to take up a marriage equality bill that passed in the Senate, as soon as supporters feel confident they have the 60 votes needed to pass.

If Delaware and Illinois both pass their bills, then marriage equality state count will stand at 12 plus the District of Columbia with half of that number having approved the measures in just the past six months.

In Rhode Island, the House originally passed a marriage equality bill in January on a vote of 51 to 19. But when the Senate passed its version of the bill, it made some changes that required the measure to go back to the House for final legislative approval.

To sustained applause from the House, Rep. Jeremiah O’Grady congratulated House Speaker Gordon Fox for his leadership in getting the bill moved through the legislature. Fox, who is openly gay, took considerable heat two years ago when he killed a marriage equality bill and moved a civil unions bill instead.

Thursday’s “debate” was marked by numerous emotional statements of support for marriage equality and for equality in general.

While passage of the bill will mean no change to straight couples, said Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, “Tomorrow, gay and lesbian couples in Rhode Island are going to wake up to a different world.”

Rep. Peter Martin, a Democrat from Newport, announced that his daughter was texting him to support the bill while watching the vote from San Francisco on a live web stream.

Rep. Karen MacBeth remembered being a kid when Aaron Frick, a high school student in Providence in 1980 who had to sue for the right to take a male peer to the prom, creating such a stir in the heavily Catholic state that the publicity went national.

Even representatives who voted against the bill expressed gratitude for how Speaker Fox’s led the debate and expressed support for gays and lesbians having equal rights.

Rep. Frank Ferri, who introduced “my husband Tony,” choked back emotion as he noted that the bill goes into effect on his and Tony’s 32nd anniversary, August 1. They married in Canada but will now marry in Rhode Island.[pullquote]”We are living up to the ideals of our founders,” said Chafee.[/pullquote]

The final vote was 56 to 15 and was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation and numerous loud cheers from the floor and a packed gallery, which then broke into a spontaneous chorus of “My Country Tis of Thee.”

Independent Governor Chafee, a long-time supporter of equal rights for LGBT people, scheduled a ceremony for 5:45 EDT on the South Steps of the State House to sign the bill into law in a public ceremony. The ceremony opened with a song from the Providence Gay Men’s Chorus in front of a large crowd.

The governor’s chief of staff, Stephen Hourahan, an openly gay man, welcomed the crowd and thanked the governor and state leaders for making the vote possible. He noted that Chafee was one of only two U.S. senators who, in 2004, supported allowing gay couples to marry.

“We are living up to the ideals of our founders,” said Chafee. He thanked the many openly gay and straight legislators who “worked for decades” to bring marriage equality to Rhode Island, including Speaker Fox, State Senator Donna Nesselbush, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, and Ray Sullivan, head of Rhode Islanders United for Marriage.

“I know that you have been waiting for this day to come. I know that you have loved ones who dreamed of this” but who have passed on, such as Julie Pell, the late daughter of former U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell, said Chafee. “At long last, you are free to marry the person you love.”

Fox thanked Chafee as a “true friend and ally” in the struggle to obtain marriage equality in Rhode Island. He thanked Rep. Art Handy, a straight representative, for introducing the bill 11 years ago. And he thanked colleagues in the House, many of whom were originally opposed to the measure, as well as Senate President Teresa Weed, who allowed the vote in the Senate despite her personal opposition.

Fox also defended his own controversial decision two years ago to substitute a civil unions bill for a marriage equality one. He said he was always determined to make the bill happen and that the unhappiness of many with that move two years ago helped build the passion and advocacy to succeed on marriage equality this year. “[pullquote]We would not be here today if you were not our proud, openly gay speaker of the House.”[/pullquote]

Second-term Senator Donna Nesselbush, who is also openly gay and sponsored the bill in the Senate, said, “We would not be here today if you were not our proud, openly gay speaker of the House.”

“We changed hearts and minds on this issue one at a time,” said Nesselbush.

Meanwhile, a civil unions law – often a precursor to marriage equality bills — went into effect May 1 in Colorado.

Other states on the verge of considering marriage equality bills this year include:

Minnesota – a House committee passed a bill in March filed by long-time openly lesbian state Rep. Karen Clark, just one day after a Senate committee did the same. Minnesotans United press spokesman Jake Loesch said a floor vote in either house could come as early as next week and must clear before May 20. Democratic Governor Mark Dayton is lobbying actively for the measure.

New Jersey – supporters of marriage equality are trying to override Republican Governor Chris Christie’s veto last year of a marriage equality bill. Garden State Equality says it is close to securing the 27 votes in the Senate and 54 votes in the Assembly to do so. It has until the end of the session, January 2014, to do so. Garden State Equality spokesman TJ Helmstetter said he thinks the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in June could help the effort.

© 2013 Keen News Service. All rights reserved.