Marriage equality advances in RI

Following news that New Zealand passed legislation to legalize same-sex marriage last week, twenty percent of US states now have laws that allow same-sex marriage. On Wednesday, April 24th, Rhode Island became the last New England state and tenth overall state to pass legislation approving same-sex marriage. It passed 26 – 12 in the Rhode Island senate. Washington D.C. and a few Native American tribes also allow same-sex marriage.

This all comes on the tails of Supreme Court hearings earlier this year regarding the Defense Of marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8. The 90-minute debate that took place on Rhode Island’s Senate floor was nothing compared to the arguments heard on those bills. We will not hear deliberations on those cases until at least July.

The bill went to a vote in the Rhode Island House of Representatives in January of this year and was approved. After this, all 5 Republican representatives in Rhode Island agreed to support the passage of the bill.

This helped when the vote finally went to the Senate. The bill needs to return to the House for another vote scheduled next week, but this is basically a technicality.

With this law approved, same-sex marriages could take place as early as August. Rhode Island has allowed civil unions since the middle of 2011 along with eight other states. Civil unions will still be recognized, but they would no longer be allowed to be performed when that time comes this summer.

Rhode Island joins Maryland and Washington as the most recent states to approve same-sex marriage. Maryland is the first and only state so far to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote, though opponents did try to send it to a ballot referendum.

The Roman Catholic Church was the biggest opposition to the bill’s passage, with many priests in the state speaking up on the issue, saying in some form that marriage is between a woman and a man and should stay that way. Ministers have never been forced to marry any couple they did not want to, and this bill does not change that law. Under this bill, religious institutions can still choose who they want to marry.

The vote was difficult for many members of the Senate. As Rhode Island lays claim to a Catholic population of around 40%, there were Senators who struggled because of their personal, religious beliefs.

The Catholic population in Rhode Island has been the main reason Rhode Island did not join the ranks of other same-sex marriage-friendly states in New England. In nearly two decades, legislation for same-sex marriage has been brought up – and shot down.

Frank Ferri, D-Warwick and also a graduate of Bryant University, is an openly gay Rhode Island representative who lobbied for gay marriage before becoming a lawmaker himself.

“After all these years, all these setbacks, all the hearings, we kept at it and we got closer and closer each year…it’s almost surreal,” Ferri said.

Delaware could be in line to be the next state to legalize same-sex marriage – as the bill was just approved in their House on Tuesday. It will continue to the Senate for a vote.

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