R.I. Senate approves same-sex marriage

The legislation will likely be signed into law within the next few weeks and would take effect Aug. 1

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 25, 2013

Sen. Donna Nesselbush ’84, D-Pawtucket — the legislation’s primary sponsor — audience members and other senators celebrated the passage of the same-sex marriage bill after seeing the vote total appear on the screen.

The Rhode Island Senate passed legislation legalizing same-sex marriage yesterday by a vote of 26-12. The vote marks the final major hurdle in the legislative process, virtually guaranteeing same-sex marriage will be signed into law in the coming weeks.

Since yesterday’s bill is different from the one the Rhode Island House passed in January, the House must approve the new version before it can go to the desk of Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14, who has long supported same-sex marriage. The House Committee on the Judiciary will vote on the measure Tuesday with a final full House vote expected Thursday.

At yesterday’s session, senators testified for and against the bill in front of a gallery audience of about 120 with an additional crowd of supporters and opponents watching the televised meeting in the lobby of the State House. In their testimonies — punctuated by singing and cheering coming from the State House lobby so loud Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed, D-Newport, said the noise was disrupting the proceedings — senators delved into final justifications of both sides of the issue.

Openly gay sponsor of the bill Sen. Donna Nesselbush ’84, D-Pawtucket, called the legislation historic and said “of all the bills I have sponsored and of all the bills I will ever sponsor in this chamber, this will be the bill that has the most personal meaning and the most impact on my life.”

“I even wore a dress,” she joked.

Nesselbush thanked previous legislators and supporters — including retired Providence Senator Rhoda Perry P’91, the same-sex marriage bill’s champion for more than ten years — for their dedication to the cause.

Analysts had previously predicted that the vote would be close, but many of the formerly undecided votes went in favor of same-sex marriage, widening the gap between the two sides. Several senators who spoke said they did not make up their minds about the issue until the days before the vote.

Many said they owed their change of heart to the quality and sheer number of testimonies they heard from their constituents, several times specifically mentioning gay couples who shared their stories.

Sen. Elizabeth Crowley, D-Central Falls, said she did not make up her mind about how she was going to vote until Wednesday morning. But she said research, testimonies from couples and her 40 years of experience as a civil clerk dealing with marriage licenses ultimately convinced her to vote in favor of same-sex marriage.

Even after getting married in a church, a couple is not legally married until it obtains approval from the state in the form of a marriage license, Crowley said. “That is a civil issue. That is not a sacramental issue,” she added.

In the predominantly Catholic state, some senators were worried about possible conflict between legalized same-sex marriage and the traditional values of the church. Sen. William Conley Jr., D-East Providence — who had been considered a swing vote — said he supported the bill because exemptions, which permit religious leaders who oppose same-sex marriage to opt out of performing these marriages, ensured “government may not dictate the definition of marriage to any religion.”

But some said they could not compromise their religious beliefs to vote in favor of the bill. Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, gave a long speech espousing the merits of traditional marriage, quoting Bible passages to support his case.

One of the most surprising moments of the night came when Sen. James Doyle II, D-Providence, who many vote-watchers were certain would oppose the bill, explained how he reconciled his religious beliefs with his support for the legislation.

“What would Jesus do,” Doyle asked, if he were asked to vote on same-sex marriage? If Jesus were in the meeting, he would choose love and vote in favor of same-sex marriage, he said. Regarding  suggestions that voting for the bill was a sin, he joked that on Judgment Day, “if the first thing the Lord asks me is why I voted that way on same-sex marriage, I’d say I’m doing pretty good.”

Several senators, including Crowley, cited a Bible passage — “faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” — to explain their support for the same-sex marriage legislation.

Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence, stressed her devotion to Catholicism and the difficulty of making a decision on the vote. But she said that in the previous few months, “the same-sex couples who came to (her) office and shared their beautiful stories” contributed “heavily” to her decision.

Chafee surprised the crowd in the lobby by showing up in the middle of the meeting. “People just don’t want to be on the wrong side of history,” Chafee told The Herald after the vote. “And that was an overwhelmingly positive vote. You’ve got to be on the right side of history.”

After the vote, supporters celebrated in the lobby and meeting chamber, congratulating the senators and one another.

“I’m thrilled. And as a pastor of a church, I know how much this is going to mean to gay families in my church and people on my staff who can now legally marry in Rhode Island,” said Jennifer Pedrick, rector of the Church of the Epiphany in East Providence.

Edmund Harris — an Episcopalian priest who was at the State House with his partner Michael — said he was happy that their relationship would be officially recognized by the state. He added that he was “grateful for the faith community that has turned out. I think a lot of the supporters were bolstered by the church and by faith.”

“It’s been a long time coming. It’s great that the Senate president got out of the way and let it happen,” said Bill Jesdale ’91 PhD’06.

Maryellen Butke, a same-sex marriage advocate, said she was “really moved” by the previously undecided senators who gave speeches before the vote. Many people’s “hearts and minds have been changed in the last few months from meeting real people like us and our family and knowing that love is love,” she added.

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  1. BROWN DEMS says:

    WOOOOOOO!! love, the Brown Dems

  2. *will sign/support/approve

  3. Kate Monteiro says:

    The role of Brown University alumni – both undergraduate and graduate – in this movement can not be over-stressed. Dear Old Brown should be proud.

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