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As senators debate, activists protest, react

The final vote in favor of same-sex marriage was met with both elation and disappointment

While state senators debated a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, supporters and opponents filled the State House lobby to make their opinions heard.

About 40 or 50 of the bill’s opponents stood in the rotunda carrying signs that said “Same Sex Marriage is Immoral and Unnecessary” and “Marriage is a Holy Institution Established by God.”

“Since I grew up, my parents taught me that marriage is by a man and a woman and not by two men and not by two women,” said Lilian Escobar, an opponent of the legislation. “That’s how God established it.”

The bill’s supporters huddled to watch the debate live on a television set up in the State House lobby. The contingent of about 150 included Brown students, members of the Rhode Islanders United for Marriage campaign and members of various faith organizations. They wore stickers that bore slogans like “I Support Marriage Equality,” “Rhode Islanders United for Marriage” and “Townies United for Marriage.”

“(Supporting the bill) puts us squarely, visibly on the side of justice and speaks to the overarching message of scripture,” said William Zelazny, district executive of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Rhode Island and Southeast Massachusetts.

The supporters watching the debate cheered raucously whenever a senator came out in support of the bill. The opponents, many of them from a predominantly-Latino group called Faith Alliance, gathered in the rotunda’s center and prayed loudly in Spanish.

As the debate continued, the mood among both crowds was tense yet optimistic.

“We’ve been working on this for so long that it’s very nerve-wracking,” said Sophia Fernandez Gold ’14, president of the Brown Democrats, a group that has held several phone banks to rally support for the bill. “But it’s hopeful.”

“I’m here for my daughter,” Escobar said. “I don’t want my daughter to go to school and have the teachers be teaching her that (being gay is) fine, that it’s normal — because it’s not.”

A battle came when Sen. Frank Ciccone, D-North Providence, proposed an amendment to put the measure up for popular vote through a referendum rather than allow the Senate to decide. Though a majority of Rhode Island residents approve of same-sex marriage, such a measure would mean a costly public fight that the bill’s supporters said they wanted to avoid.

When Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed, D-Jamestown and Newport, announced the amendment had failed, she only got as far as “10 in the affirmative…” before the crowd erupted into cheers.

A few minutes later the bill’s opponents, circled around the seal on the rotunda floor, began to sing so loudly their voices could be heard within the Senate chamber. The hymn’s lyrics were in Spanish, but Escobar said they roughly translated to, “It is not with a sword and not with an army but with His Holy Spirit.”

“It’s the Holy Spirit who fights for us,” she said.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 — widely known to support same-sex marriage — made a surprise appearance in the lobby to watch the vote, and advocates of the legislation met his presence with a standing ovation.

“The first vote, to go to the referendum, was defeated, 28 to 10 — I think that’s always a good straw poll,” Chafee told The Herald before the Senate voted on the legislation. “That’s an overwhelming vote. I’m feeling good about it.”

When Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence, who had not announced how she planned to vote, came out in favor of the bill, the supporters yelled again in celebration.

Soon the roll-call vote was taken and the camera panned slowly down from the ceiling, passing the array of red and green lights representing each Senator’s vote. It settled upon a digital LED display carrying the final tally: 26-12, with 26 in favor of same-sex marriage and 12 opposed.

For a few moments, the State House was quiet as everyone took in the results. Then the lobby full of supporters burst into cheers.

“I’ve been working on this issue with the (Brown Democrats) and with everyone at Brown for about three years, and it’s so important to so many of my friends and family members, and I think it’s just a wonderful thing,” Fernandez Gold said.

Though the bill’s opponents were disappointed with the result, Faith Alliance chairman David Rodriguez said the group remains strong in its convictions.

“We’re happy to be here standing up for truth,” he said. “They won on the legislative end, but we will keep teaching our people what God wants.”

“This is a great day for our state,” said Rhode Island native John Perilli ’15. “I’m really glad our state was able to come together and do this. I’m glad we were able to get such support on campus.”

On College Hill, reaction to the news was positive.

“I think it’s absolutely wonderful and I couldn’t be happier,” said Noah Elbot ’14.

“It’s about damn time,” said Sara Erkal ’16.

Erkal said she believes heterosexual marriage and same-sex marriage are equally protected by the Constitution, and banning same-sex marriage “goes against … the ideals our country was founded on.”

“It’s obviously a huge step forward,” said Sawyer Thompson ’16. “I think it’s a sign that in the entire (United States) this kind of thing is becoming more common in society.”

Members of the Brown Democrats walked from the State House together to the Main Green to celebrate their victory and to hold one last phone bank — this time thanking senators for their support rather than asking them for it.


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