PROVIDENCE — Wednesday, April 24, as the full Rhode Island Senate prepared to take its historic vote backing same-sex marriage legislation (Bill S38), East Providence's William J. Conley was one of several senators to deliver remarks during discussion of the bill on the floor of the upper chamber.
The bill eventually passed on a full Senate vote of 26-12, setting the stage for Rhode Island to become the 10th state in the nation to recognize marriage equality and the last in New England to do so. The Senate also passed the House version of the same-sex marriage bill (H5015) by a 26-12 tally.
Because there was a change to the senate bill for religious protections, the House must vote on S38. The legislation will be voted on by House Judiciary Committee Tuesday, April 30. It will then advance to a full floor vote Thursday, May 2. It is expected to pass easily in committee and on the floor.
All that will be left then is for Gov. Lincoln Chafee to sign the legislation into the law, which he has previously said he would. Same-sex marriage will become official in Rhode Island as of Aug. 1 of this year.
The previous afternoon Sen. Conley (D-Dist. 18, East Providence, Pawtucket) voted in the 7-4 majority to advance the bill out of the Judiciary Committee and to a full Senate vote.
Wednesday, Sen. Conley, along with his local cohort Sen. David Bates (R-Dist. 32, East Providence, Barrington, Bristol), was among those to stand to second the introduction of S38 for a full floor vote.
A last-ditch amendment offered up by Sen. Frank Ciccone (D-Dist. 7, Providence), seeking to once more take the same-sex marriage vote out of the General Assembly and put it before the electorate in a state-wide referendum, was soundly defeated.
The following is a transcript of the remarks Sen. Conley made on the floor Wednesday.
"I speak today in support of Senate Bill S38 Substitute A. In our republic and in our great State, marriage has been both a legal and a religious relationship. The testimony we heard in committee and the public discussions about this issue have demonstrated the deep moral, religious, and legal disagreements that exist about same sex marriage. Our obligation as legislators is to define and promote liberty and justice for all. Government succeeds only when it creates conditions which protect the inherent human dignity of our citizens so that they may realize true freedom. While it is the task of government to determine the legal rights and benefits of marriage, government may not dictate a definition of marriage to any religion.
"When we decide here today which human beings should qualify for marriage, we should think through the purpose of marriage and the civic virtues it honors. Society demands a marriage law that fosters committed family relationships because we all accept family as one of the fundamental building blocks of our society. The State clearly has an interest in promoting a civil marriage relationship which is imbued with and celebrates the
ideals offideJity, mutuality, monogamy, commitment, companionship, and family. This legislation serves those purposes and honors those civic virtues.
"Many of our citizens want reassurance that the government is not trying to redefine marriage for all purposes and that their faith and belief in the Sacrament of Matrimony is protected. This sentiment is an expression of a cherished principle of our liberty that all churches and faiths are protected from the government. When the State defines a civil marriage it cannot redefine religious beliefs. This legislation contains robust protections for the free exercise of religious beliefs in relation to matrimony. It does not impose any obligation on any religion to modify its faith definition for marriage.
"Our State's history and tradition has long had a special appreciation and respect for the importance of religious liberty and the acknowledgment that government must balance societal interests with the exercise of religious freedom. Rhode Island's Religious Freedom Restoration Act is already among the strongest freedom of religion protection statutes in the nation. The religious protections in this legislation reaffirm Rhode Island's proud and revered tradition for the protection of religious liberty.
"As a Catholic and a legislator, I recognize that to protect our religious freedom we must protect the freedom of others. So I believe that it is our responsibility as legislators to make this decision and I am proud to accept that responsibility today.
"I will be voting in favor of this legislation because it correctly reflects the State's interest in the purpose of marriage and honors the civic virtues of that relationship. It reaffirms religious liberty by protecting an individual's right to act in accordance with their religious beliefs. Although this issue may appear divisive at this time, I firmly pray, hope, and believe that history will judge marriage equality as an expression of joy, freedom, and liberty that gives all Rhode Islanders an equal opportunity to understand and complete their humanity."