Rhode Island Marriage Bill Passes House Judiciary Committee
On Tuesday, January 22, the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to send House Bill 5015, which extends marriage rights to gays and lesbians, to the floor of the House for a full vote. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Arthur Handy, D-Cranston. Handy said 42 of 75 House members had signed on as co-sponsors. This is the first time a General Assembly committee has voted to send a marriage equality bill to the floor.
The full House is expected to take up Rep. Handy's bill on Thursday. Rhode Island is the only New England state, which does not allow same-sex couples to wed.
House Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence) had vowed to bring the bill to a vote before the end of the month. Activists believe there are enough votes in the House to pass the bill.
Marriage equality activists were jubilant about the HJC's vote.
"After hearing testimony from everyday Rhode Islanders -- gay and straight, friends, family, and community leaders -- the committee resoundingly endorsed extending the unique protections and recognition of marriage to all loving, committed couples," said Ray Sullivan, Rhode Islanders United for Marriage campaign director. "This historic, affirmative vote moves us one step closer to finally making the Ocean State a place where all families are valued, respected and treated equally."
"We are grateful to Speaker Fox, his leadership team, Rep. Handy and all our sponsors for their commitment to acting swiftly on this important legislation and we look forward to having this bill debated by the full House. Momentum is clearly with us, but we're not taking anything for granted and will double our efforts in the coming days to grow the broad and bipartisan coalition of supportive legislators in both chambers," added Sullivan.
Should the House approve the gay marriage bill, the Senate will then take up the issue.
Senator Donna Nesselbush, (D-Pawtucket) has sponsored another gay marriage bill. Nesselbush reported 11 of 38 Senate members had signed on to her bill.
Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed, (D-Newport), and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Michael McCaffrey, (D-Warwick), opposes same-sex marriage. But Paiva-Weed said she would allow a vote to take place.
Governor Lincoln Chafee (I), State Treasurer Gina Raimondo (D), and State Rep. Frank Ferri (D-Warwick), and state Democratic Party chairman Ed Pacheco testified in favor of the bill at last week's HJC hearing.
On January 14, the pro-LGBT group Rhode Islanders United for Marriage was launched. Sullivan described the group as a broad and growing non-partisan coalition of organizations who are coming together to stand up for all families and ensure the Ocean State joins the rest of New England in providing the unique protection and recognition that only marriage can afford.
"With more legislative sponsors and supporters than ever before, we believe we can win passage of this important civil rights act in 2013," he added.
Among the many organizations joining Rhode Islanders United for Marriage was the Rhode Island Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality, which represents more than 100 clergy and faith leaders from 13 different denominations.
The coalition also includes numerous members of the labor movement in Rhode Island, including the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, which endorsed marriage equality two years ago, the National Education Association Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 328 the Service Employees International Union, Rhode Island State Council, as well as the United Auto Workers, Region 9A.
Opponents of same-sex marriage were also out in force at last week’s hearing.
A group known as the "Faith Alliance to Preserve the Sanctity of Marriage as Established by God" held a rally before the HJC hearing. Speakers included representatives from the Catholic Church, the Knights of Columbus, the National Organization for Marriage and a number of Hispanic and Latino church groups.
Organizers said the alliance’s purpose is to "safeguard God’s covenant and definition of marriage. It does not seek to judge or condemn gay, lesbian, or transgender individuals."
Sen. Frank Ciccone, (D- North Providence), has said he plans to introduce a bill that would put the issue before voters. Chafee promised to veto a referendum that would allow voters to define marriage.
The state moved one step closer to legalizing same-sex marriage when Chafee signed an Executive Order last May mandating the state government to officially recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
A same-sex marriage bill has been introduced every year since 1997 but has never made it out of committee for a floor vote. Chafee signed a civil union bill into law in July 2011.