PROVIDENCE — The House of Representatives, including all four members from East Providence, voted to allow same-sex couples to marry in Rhode Island by a 51 to 19 Thursday afternoon, Jan. 24.
The vote, which was celebrated with cheers by supporters, marks the first time either chamber in Rhode Island has voted on the issue since a same-sex marriage bill was first introduced in 1997.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Arthur Handy, who has introduced the bill for each of the last 11 years, said the measure is about justice and equity for same-sex couples, but is also emotional and personal for so many who have worked for years for marriage equality.
The bill had the sponsorship of 42 of the 75 members of Rhode Island’s House of Representatives, and won unanimous approval Tuesday from the House Judiciary Committee. East Providence Reps. Katherine Kazarian (D-Dist. 63), Helio Melo (D-Dist. 64), Gregg Amore (D-Dist. 65) and Joy Hearn (D-Dist. 66) all cast “yea” votes.
House Speaker Gordon Fox was the bill’s first co-sponsor, and promised to bring it to a vote early in the session, which began Jan. 1.
“I am thrilled that the House passed a true equality bill in the spirit of Roger Williams when he founded our state in 1636. This legislation is about codifying the institution of marriage and making our families stronger, and it is ultimately about commitment and love,” said Speaker Fox, who is the first openly gay person to lead of one of Rhode Island’s legislative chambers.
He continued, “A large majority of the House members today signaled their respect for the right of the gay community to be married. We are marching toward equality, and on a personal note as an openly gay man, I am tremendously proud of the House of Representatives. Separate can never be equal.”
Governor Lincoln D. Chafee, who last year signed an executive order requiring all state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, also supports the bill and has pledged to sign it if it emerges from the Senate.
The legislation (2013-H 5015 Sub. A) removes gender-specific language from the section of the general laws that governs eligibility for marriage. It inserts language that allows any person to marry any other eligible person, regardless of gender, effective immediately upon adoption of the bill.
It contains a provision that allows couples who entered into civil unions in Rhode Island to convert those unions to marriages, and automatically converts all remaining civil unions that have not been dissolved by Jan. 1, 2014, into marriages on that date. Rhode Island has allowed civil unions since July 2011, but relatively few have been performed.
The bill reiterates constitutionally guaranteed freedom for religious institutions to set their own guidelines for marriage eligibility within their faith, and stipulates that under no circumstances will clergy or others authorized to perform marriages be obligated by law to officiate at any particular civil marriage or religious rite of marriage.
Rhode Island is the only New England state that does not allow same-sex marriage. Currently nine states and Washington, D.C., allow same-sex couples to marry.
Similar legislation (2013-S 0038) has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush (D-Dist. 15, Pawtucket, North Providence).
For the vote tally, visit http://webserver.rilin.state.ri.us/HVotes/, choose “1/24/2013” from the drop-down menu, and click on “Submit.”