STATE HOUSE – The House Judiciary Committee today voted unanimously to recommend passage of legislation to allow same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, sending the bill to the full House of Representatives.
A vote is expected Thursday in the House, where 42 of the 75 members signed on as sponsors of the bill, including House Speaker Gordon D. Fox, who pledged to make its passage a priority this year.
Today’s vote marks the first time the bill has been voted out of a committee in either of Rhode Island’s legislative chambers, paving the way for what will also be the first floor vote by either of the chambers. The legislation has been introduced annually in some form since 1997.
Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Dist. 18, Cranston), who has been the bill’s primary sponsor since he joined the House in 2003, said it was very gratifying to see the bill move forward for the first time.
“It’s just overwhelming to see a unanimous ‘yes’ vote on marriage equality by a panel of elected officials in Rhode Island. This is a historic moment when our state is at last turning toward acceptance and equality of all people. So many Rhode Islanders have been yearning for the moment when their relationships and their families have the same rights and responsibilities as any other. It’s an honor to be able to play a part in this journey,” said Representative Handy.
Committee members who voted in favor of sending the bill to the floor include: Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Edith H. Ajello (D-Dist. 1, Providence), Rep. John J. DeSimone (D-Dist. 5, Providence), Rep. Peter F. Martin (D-Dist. 75, Newport), Rep. Joseph S. Almeida (D-Dist. 12, Providence), Rep. Christopher R. Blazejewski (D-Dist. 2, Providence), Rep. Robert E. Craven Sr. (D-Dist. 32, North Kingstown), Rep. Doreen Marie Costa (R-Dist. 31, North Kingstown, Exeter), Rep. Donald J. Lally Jr. (D-Dist. 33, South Kingstown, Narragansett), Rep. Michael J. Marcello (D-Dist. 41, Scituate, Cranston), Rep. J. Patrick O’Neill (D-Dist. 59, Pawtucket) and Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick). Committee member Rep. Charlene M. Lima (D-Dist. 14, Cranston, Providence) arrived after the meeting adjourned and indicated that she would have voted to approve the measure. Rep. Donna M. Walsh, (D-Dist. 36, Charlestown, New Shoreham, South Kingstown, Westerly), was absent, but she along with Representatives Ajello, O’Neill, Blazejewski, Martin, Craven, Lally, Almeida, and Shekarchi, is among the bill’s cosponsors.
Speaker Fox, who is the first openly gay person to serve as leader of either chamber, said the vote was an important and historic move toward genuine equality.
“In his inaugural address yesterday, President Obama said it best: ‘Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.’ This historic vote taken today by the House Judiciary Committee is an important step toward completing our journey,” said the speaker.
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.
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 stipulation 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 currently the only New England state that does not allow same-sex marriage, although Gov. Lincoln Chafee issued an executive order last year requiring state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.
In September, a WPRI poll of 501 likely voters in Rhode Island found that 56 percent of Rhode Islanders support same-gender marriage, and only 36 percent oppose it.
Similar legislation (2013-S 0038) has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush (D-Dist. 15, Pawtucket, North Providence).