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R.I. lawmakers introduce same-sex marriage bills

Rhode Island, Donna Nesselbush, gay news, Washington Blade

Donna Nesselbush

Two Rhode Island legislators on Thursday introduced bills that would legalize same-sex marriage in the Ocean State.

“We are long overdue,” state Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston,) who has introduced a same-sex marriage bill in the Rhode Island House of Representatives each year for more than a decade, said. “Rhode Island, the colony founded on the principle of personal liberty, is now the only New England state that doesn’t allow same-gender couples equal marriage. Rhode Islanders recognize that same-gender couples deserve the rights and responsibilities that other couples already enjoy, and support has been getting wider every year.”

Openly lesbian state Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket) introduced a similar proposal in the Senate.

“After many years, I have finally found the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with, the woman I want to marry,” she said. “We are both spiritual and want to deepen and strengthen our devotion. We are deeply in love, and are hoping and praying for marriage equality so we can tie the knot. But this is not about me or us. This is about the thousands of loving gay and lesbian couples who want and deserve the right to marry.”

Nine states and D.C. currently allow same-sex marriage.

Less than 50 couples have taken advantage of Rhode Island’s civil unions law since it took effect in July 2011. The Ocean State remains the only New England state without a same-sex marriage law.

Forty-two members of the House have co-sponsored the measure in their chamber, while 11 state senators signed onto Nesselbush’s proposal. Gay House Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence) said he remains committed to bringing the measure to a full vote by the end of this month.

Nesselbush said Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Newport,) who opposes marriage rights for same-sex couples, has also pledged to allow a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee once the House approves it.

“With nine states, the District of Columbia and the president of the United States all embracing marriage equality, we have never been closer,” Nesselbush said. “Let this be the year Rhode Island joins the burgeoning force for equality that is sweeping our nation.”

Ray Sullivan, campaign manager of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, applauded the lawmakers who introduced the measures. He noted to the Washington Blade on Thursday that 53 of the state’s 113 legislators signed onto the measures as co-sponsors.

“We’ve been working and building towards this moment for a very long time,” Sullivan said. “The momentum is palpable and it’s great to see so many pro-equality legislators standing up for equal rights for all loving committed couples.”

Governor Lincoln Chafee signed an executive order last year mandating state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in neighboring Massachusetts, Connecticut and other states. He has publicly backed nuptials for gays and lesbians, and said he will sign a same-sex marriage bill if one were to reach his desk.


Chafee: Same-sex marriage is ‘long overdue’ in R.I.

Lincoln Chafee, Rhode Island, gay news, Washington Blade

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee speaks at a press conference on Monday that announced a coalition of groups in support of the state’s same-sex marriage law. (Photo courtesy of Christian Vareika)

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee on Monday said that extending marriage rights to same-sex couples is consistent with the civil and religious liberties his state’s founding fathers sought more than three centuries ago.

“First of all, it’s again coming back here in Rhode Island with another effort to pass what we should have passed a long time ago, considering our history as the first really to have tolerance in the colonies of the New World,” the governor told the Washington Blade a few hours after he joined other elected officials and advocates at a Providence church where they announced a coalition in support of the same-sex marriage bills state Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston) and lesbian state Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket) introduced earlier this month. “Roger Williams fled persecution and then enshrined here in 1663 in a royal charter granted by King Charles II, really the first liberties in civil and religious areas ever not only in the New World, but in the world. We’re celebrating the 350th anniversary of that 1663 charter this year, so we’re all getting reacquainted with those liberties that granted those many years ago.”

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the same-sex marriage bill later today.

Chafee, who signed Rhode Island’s civil unions bill into law in 2011 in spite of his own misgivings about it, signed an executive order last year ordering state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut and other jurisdictions. In spite of this mandate, Rhode Island remains the only New England state in which gays and lesbians cannot tie the knot.

“So many of us feel that this is long overdue here in Rhode Island the fact we’re trailing other New England states in passing marriage equality is added incentive to get it done this year on the 350th anniversary of the charter,” the governor said.

Chafee, a former Republican U.S. senator who became an independent before his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, spoke with the Blade less than a week after White House spokesperson Shin Inouye reaffirmed President Obama’s support of nuptials for gays and lesbians in response to a question about Rhode Island’s same-sex bills. Inouye also told the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper late last month that the president would vote for a same-sex marriage bill in the Illinois State Legislature if he were still a member of it.

Obama’s re-election campaign in late October urged voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington to support same-sex marriage referenda in their respective states. It also urged Minnesotans earlier in the year to vote against a proposal that would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman in their state’s constitution.

All three same-sex marriage referenda passed on Nov. 6, while Minnesota voters struck down the proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned nuptials for gays and lesbians in their state.

“Well you know better than I do what’s happening around the country, especially in the 2012 elections in the referenda that were out there and the success marriage equality had,” Chafee said in response to whether nuptials for same-sex couples in Rhode Island would resonate beyond New England. “I don’t know if it’s too earth-shattering when Rhode Island finally gets on board, but being a very heavily Roman Catholic state — we’re the most heavily Roman Catholic state in the country — that message would be important, that even our Roman Catholics here support marriage equality. And that is true.”

Gay House Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence) said earlier this month he remains committed to bringing the same-sex marriage measure to a full vote in his chamber by the end of January. Though she is opposed to nuptials for gays and lesbians, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Newport,) has also pledged to allow a vote on the issue in the Senate Judiciary Committee once the House approves it.

“They’re on the fast-track in the House,” Chafee said. “Here in Rhode Island in the Senate we’re counting the noses. I would hope that they deal with it quickly and let’s move on to the economic issues and other issues. I see this is also is an economic issue, but let’s pass this and I’ll sign it and we’ll tackle some of the more thornier issues out there.”

Chafee further referenced Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who was then-Senate President Pro Tempore of his state’s legislature in 2009 when his chamber voted 26-4 to approve a same-sex marriage bill, in spite of predictions that the margin would have been far closer.

“He said, let’s just call the roll. Just call the roll. Stop hemming and hawing and it was 26-4,” Chafee said. “That was back in 2009. I would think it would be even stronger here now. Call the roll. And that’s what I said at the press conference: Call the roll on history; Call the role on the rights of our gay, lesbian friends and neighbors and loved ones; call the roll on the economy and the economic issues that are important here.”


R.I. House approves same-sex marriage bill

Lincoln Chafee, Democratic National Convention, gay news, Washington Blade

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Rhode Island House of Representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would allow gays and lesbians to marry in the state.

The 51-19 vote came after lawmakers on both sides of the issue debated the measure for more than an hour.

“This bill is so important,” state Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston,) who introduced the proposal. “It is one of the most important things we’re going to do, and it’s historic.”

Deputy Majority Leader Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence) is among those who spoke against the bill. He described the measure as “an irrevocable societal game-changer” that would redefine the definition of marriage.

“Marriage is also significantly the biological unit of the family, promoting the well-being of children, providing them with a framework of identity and responsibility, creating a stable marital order and through this order sustaining a civil society,” Corvese said. “By redefining marriage, by breaking and disregarding the present parameters, you are not only destabilizing the marital order and by extension civil society, you are opening the door to further redefinition.”

State Rep. John Edwards (D-Portsmouth/Tiverton) countered.

“This will be a game-changer, but I believe it is a game-changer that will make things better for our state and it will allow all those people right now who truly love each other to enter the same contract that I or my wife and most of the people in this room currently enjoy,” he said. “This is not a religious issue. This is not about the natural order. It is strictly a civil rights issue.”

State Rep. Maria Cimini (D-Providence) discussed how she and her husband tied the knot in the Rhode Island capital less than three years ago.

“He and I went with a check for $34 to Providence City Hall,” she said. “No one raised an eye brow. No one flinched. We filled out a form and I was able to get married. And yet my family members — my aunts who have been together for over 20 years have had to spend a lot of money to protect their assets, even though their love and their commitment is greater than I’ve known at this point being in such a new relationship. We have colleagues in this room who have spent decades with their partners, with their husbands. They have had to leave this state to commit to [each other.]”

Gay state Rep. Frank Ferri (D-Warwick) noted he and his partner, Tony Carparco, will celebrate their 32nd anniversary in August as he emotionally spoke in support of the bill.

“You can define marriage any way you want,” Ferri said. “We’ve had a marriage for 32 years.”

The vote comes two days after the House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the measure.

Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Newport) remains opposed to marriage rights for same-sex couples, but she has pledged she would allow a vote on the proposal in the Senate Judiciary Committee once the House approves it.

Rhode Island remains the only New England state without a same-sex marriage law. Governor Lincoln Chafee told the Washington Blade during an interview earlier this month that he feels nuptials for gays and lesbians are “long overdue” in the Ocean State.

“There are certain legislative votes that can fairly be characterized as ‘historic,’” he said in a statement after the House approved the bill. “The Rhode Island House of Representatives’ overwhelming passage of marriage equality legislation is one such vote.”

Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, agreed.

“Today is a proud and historic day,” he said. “For the first time, the Rhode Island House of Representatives has affirmed that all families in our state should have access to the unique protection and recognition that only civil marriage provides.”

Handy echoed Sullivan’s sentiments after the vote.

“This issue is about fairness and allowing all Rhode Islanders to have equal access to the rights and responsibilities that come with marriage, but marriage is about so much more than legal protections,” he said. “My wife and I have been married since 1997, and as we’ve worked together to raise our son, the value of having a committed, strong family has become more apparent to us over time. All Rhode Islanders deserve to enjoy that security and support, and deserve to have their family recognized as equal to others. It feels good to see how far we’ve come in Rhode Island toward valuing all families, and I know we are close to the day when marriage equality becomes law here.”

The Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Marriage and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence are among the groups that remain opposed to any effort to extend nuptials to gays and lesbians in the Ocean State.

“Today’s vote by the House of Representatives undermines the common good of our state and strikes against the very foundation of our culture,” the Rhode Island Catholic Conference said in a statement that also referred to the state’s nearly 10 percent unemployment rate and the plight of those without homes during the cold spell that brought single digit temperatures to the region earlier this week. “Unfortunately, this bill redefines marriage and fails to protect the religious liberties of many faith communities and individuals of conscience who believe that marriage is a union of one man and one woman. As witnessed in other states, those who support traditional marriage will most likely be punished by costly lawsuits and cultural persecution.”


R.I. Senate approves same-sex marriage bill

Rhode Island Statehouse, gay news, Washington Blade

Rhode Island Statehouse (Photo by Max Binder via Wikimedia Commons)

The Rhode Island state Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry in the Ocean State.

The 26-12 vote came a day after the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the measure.

“Of all the bills I will ever sponsor, this will be the bill that will have the most impact on my life,” state Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket,) who sponsored Senate Bill 38, said before the vote. She specifically thanked Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport,) who opposes same-sex marriage, for allowing a vote in the chamber.

State Sen. Dawson Hodgson (R-North Kingstown,) who is among the five members of the Senate Republican Caucus who on Tuesday announced their support of SB 38, said before the vote he backs the proposal because of “dignity, fairness and the rule of law.” Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (D-Providence) repeatedly highlighted her Catholic faith before she announced she would vote for the measure.

“I will be casting my vote on the side of love,” she said.

Neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut are among the nine states and D.C. in which gays and lesbians can legally marry.

Rhode Island’s civil unions law took effect in 2011, but less than 100 couples have taken advantage of it. Governor Lincoln Chafee last year signed an executive order that mandated state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other jurisdictions.

Senators rejected an proposed amendment to SB 38 by state Sen. Frank Ciccone (D-Providence) that would have placed the issue before Rhode Island voters in 2014. The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday struck down the Providence Democrat’s referendum bill by a 6-5 vote margin.

Other same-sex marriage opponents also spoke out against SB 38 before it passed.

“The Bible is clear: marriage is between one man and one woman,” state Sen. Harold Metts (D-Providence) said. “God’s word places me in opposition to Senate Bill 38.

The Rhode Island House of Representatives, which in January overwhelmingly approved its own same-sex marriage bill, is expected to grant final approval to SB 38 on May 2 once it goes through the House Judiciary Committee.

Chafee has said he will sign the bill into law.

“Pending the final vote by the House of Representatives, Rhode Island will no longer be an outlier in our region,” the governor said in a statement. “We will have the welcome mat out. We will be open for business, and we will once again affirm our legacy as a place that is tolerant and appreciative of diversity.”

State Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston,) who introduced the same-sex marriage bill in the House, also welcomed SB 38′s passage.

“For the many Rhode Islanders who have been waiting all their lives for equality and recognition that they deserve the same rights and responsibilities as their neighbors, today is a great relief,” he said. “At last, marriage equality is going to happen.”

Same-sex marriage is expected to become legal in Rhode Island on Aug. 1.