April 24, 2013

R.I. close to becoming 10th state to approve gay marriage

The Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island is on a path to becoming the 10th state to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry after a landmark vote in the state's Senate on Wednesday.

click image to enlarge

Rhode Island state Sen. Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, center, reacts seconds after the state senate passed a same-sex marriage bill at the Statehouse, in Providence, R.I., Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Nesselbush was the main sponsor of the bill. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

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Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee testifies in support of same-sex marriage before the state's House Judiciary Committee in January.

2013 Associated Press File Photo

The Senate passed gay marriage legislation by a comfortable 26-12 margin, following a House vote of approval in January. The bill must now return to the House for a largely procedural vote, likely next week, but the celebration began Wednesday.

Hundreds of people filled the Statehouse with cheers following the vote.

"I grew up in Rhode Island and I'd like to retire in Rhode Island," said Annie Silvia, 61, who now lives with her partner of 30 years just across the border in North Attleboro, Mass. "No. 10 is a nice round number, but I'd like it to be bigger. Fifty sounds good to me."

Heavily Catholic Rhode Island is the last remaining New England state without gay marriage. Marriage legislation has been introduced in the state for nearly two decades, only to languish on the legislative agenda.

Supporters mounted a renewed push this year, and the Senate vote was seen as the critical test after the House easily passed the bill. Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, called Wednesday's vote historic.

"I'm very much looking forward to signing this," he told The Associated Press as he congratulated supporters.

The first gay marriages in Rhode Island could take place Aug. 1, when the legislation would take effect. Civil unions would no longer be available to same-sex couples as of that date, though the state would continue to recognize existing civil unions. Lawmakers approved civil unions two years ago, though few couples have sought them.

Hundreds of opponents also gathered at the Statehouse for the vote, singing hymns and holding signs as the Senate deliberated. Rev. David Rodriguez, a Providence minister, said he was disappointed by the vote. He said he planned to continue to stand up for traditional marriage.

"Marriage between a man and a woman is what God wanted," he said. "We will continue to do what we know how to do: Keep praying and preaching."

The Roman Catholic Church was the bill's most significant opponent. During the Senate's emotional debate several senators said they struggled mightily, weighing their personal religious beliefs against stories they heard from gay constituents or their families.

Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence, said she lost sleep over her vote but decided, despite opposition from the Catholic Church, to vote "on the side of love."

"I'm a practicing Catholic. I'm proud to be a Catholic," she said, adding that it was the personal stories of gays, lesbians and their families in her district who convinced her. "I struggled with this for days, for weeks. It's certainly not an easy vote."

Opponents to the bill tried unsuccessfully to send the question to the voters as a ballot referendum. After that failed, Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, told his colleagues that he couldn't go against his religious convictions and that residents in his community are more concerned about other matters.

"My constituents are more concerned with bread-and-butter issues," he said. "They want food on the table. They want their kids to get a good education."

The Rhode Island legislation states that religious institutions may set their own rules regarding who is eligible to marry within the faith and specifies that no religious leader is obligated to officiate at any marriage ceremony and no religious group is required to provide facilities or services related to a gay marriage.

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