After 16 years of failed attempts, a bill to legalize same-sex marriage will come to a decisive vote on the Senate floor today, on the heels of Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee approval. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Donna Nesselbush ’84, D-Pawtucket, passed the committee by a 7-4 vote yesterday.
If the Senate votes in favor of the bill, it will go back to the House Committee on the Judiciary and, if approved, the full House floor, because the bill has been amended to include additional protections for religious leaders opposed to same-sex marriage. If the House passes the bill — which many deem likely because the amendment does not significantly alter the legislation — it will go to the desk of Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14, who has previously stated that he would sign a same-sex marriage bill into law.
The legislation the committee passed was identical to the same-sex marriage bill the House passed in January. The committee also voted down legislation proposed by Sen. Frank Ciccone, D-Providence, that would have put the issue to a public referendum.
The prospects of the Senate legalizing same-sex marriage look favorable but are not guaranteed. All five of the state’s Republican senators announced yesterday that they would vote in favor of the same-sex marriage bill.
At the vote Tuesday, members of the crowd applauded as William Conley, D-East Providence — thought to be the one swing vote on the committee — walked into the chamber, and they continued to applaud as the other senators filed in. Nesselbush received a standing ovation.
“In the early 1980s, I marched in my first gay pride parade,” Nesselbush said before Monday’s vote. “Now, some 30 years later, I am honored to be the lead sponsor of the marriage equality bill.”
When the vote was announced just 10 minutes into the meeting, the audience erupted in cheers, applause and hugs.
Josephine O’Connell and Maryellen Butke, whose 12-year-old son Matthew Lannon’s testimony in favor of same-sex marriage at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month went viral on the Internet, arrived at the hearing wearing sashes emblazoned with the words “Bride-to-be.” O’Connell and Butke, who have been together for 14 years, both said they were “ecstatic” that the legalization bill passed and the referendum bill failed.
O’Connell said Lannon was already asking her at the start of the meeting, “Are you going to have a big wedding or a small wedding?”
“Every day that goes by, there are more and more people who are choosing love,” Butke said.
Butke said she has been coming to the State House for almost 25 years to advocate and listen to hearings. “I remember sitting in these seats and listening to people stand up — who said they were Christian — and spew such hatred,” she said. “I would just cry from the hatred, and now today I can cry from the love and the positivity.”
Sylvia Deluca donned a ‘Bride-to-be’ sash in honor of her daughter, who previously entered a civil union with her partner and will have the opportunity to be legally married if the bill passes in the Senate today, she said.
“I’m very happy for my daughter and her wife,” she said. “Now in the state where she lives, where she works and where we live, we can have a wedding for her. And that’s wonderful.”
“We’ve been fighting for this for a long time, so this is a big step, and we still have a lot of work to do to get the bill passed,” said Seth Magaziner ’06, treasurer of Marriage Equality Rhode Island.
Nesselbush told The Herald that legalizing same-sex marriage has gained significant momentum in recent years along with a shift in public opinion.
Legislators have changed their minds on the issue after listening to testimony and hearing from constituents, she said. The bill’s religious protections — which allow religious figures and organizations to refuse services to same-sex couples on religious grounds — have also made it more appealing to legislators, she added.
“I feel very hopeful. I think it has great chances of passing,” Nesselbush told The Herald. “I don’t count my chickens before they’re hatched, so to speak, so I will leave it at that.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the bill approved by Senate Judiciary Committee was identical to the bill passed by the House of Representatives in January and will go straight to the desk of Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 if passed. In fact, the bill was amended to include additional protections for religious leaders morally opposed to same-sex marriages, and because it was amended, if it is passed, both the House Committee on the Judiciary as well as the full House of Representatives will have to approve them again before they go to the governor’s desk.