PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Same-sex marriage will be legal in Rhode Island starting Aug. 1 after the R.I. House of Representatives gave final approval to the legislation Thursday, thrilling supporters who've been pushing the issue at the State House for 16 years.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed the bill into law at a ceremony on the South Steps of the State House Thursday evening, where he was joined by Rhode Island's congressional delegation, state lawmakers and advocates for same-sex marriage. Hundreds of people of all ages gathered on the lawn to watch the event.
"Today we are making history," Chafee, who has backed same-sex marriage since he was a Republican U.S. senator, told the crowd. "I am proud to say that now, at long last, you are free to marry the person you love."
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House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is openly gay and who pushed the bill through the legislature, choked back tears as he described the long effort to win passage and thanked his partner of 15 years, Marcus LaFond, for his support.
"We're not going to be talking about same-sex marriage anymore - we're going to be talking about marriage," Fox said. LaFond told WPRI.com that when he and Fox first started dating, "I don't think we believed that this would be a reality." He said he was heartened by the support the bill received from straight couples.
The House voted 56-15 Thursday afternoon to give final approval to the bill after a respectful and at times emotional discussion. The result - seen as a foregone conclusion after the bill cleared the Rhode Island Senate last week on a 26-12 vote - was met with huge applause and a group singing of "My Country 'Tis of Thee."
"Today a dream has come true," state Rep. Frank Ferri, D-Warwick, who is openly gay, said to a standing ovation. "This moment is surreal. For us in Rhode Island, we have achieved an understanding about the human condition - that we all are one family and need to look out for each other."
Fox had tears in his eyes off and on throughout the House debate, which drew the attention of media outlets from outside Rhode Island. A sizable crowd gathered on the floor of the chamber and in the galleries to watch the House proceedings and gave standing ovations to a number of lawmakers after their speeches.
"What we are doing today is a triumph of tolerance," said state Rep. Spencer Dickinson, D-North Kingstown.
State Rep. Arthur Corvese, an opponent of the bill, thanked Fox for conducting the debate "with a great deal amount of fairness."
Corvese said he opposes allowing same-sex marriage because it defies "the common good, common sense and the natural law" and warned that legalization could have "incalculable and unforeseeable ramifications on our children."
State Rep. Samuel Azzinaro, D-Westerly, added: "I don't feel we or I have the authority to redefine the word marriage."
Rhode Island was the only state in New England where same-sex marriage wasn't legal and becomes the 10th state in the country to allow gays to wed. A WPRI 12 poll last year found 56% of Rhode Island voters favored legalizing same-sex marriage, with 36% opposed.
Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence Thomas Tobin released a pastoral letter on Thursday saying he was "profoundly disappointed" about the same-sex marriage bill becoming law, and warning Catholics to "examine their consciences very carefully" before going to the weddings of local gays and lesbians.
The Senate's same-sex marriage legislation includes more expansive protections for religious groups than a different version of the bill that passed the House back in January by an overwhelming margin .
Same-sex marriage bills have been introduced in Rhode Island repeatedly since 1997, but none had ever gotten out of committee until this year.
The last major drive to legalize gay weddings in Rhode Island failed in 2011, leading to the creation of civil unions, which drew little support from same-sex marriage advocates. Civil unions will be eliminated once same-sex marriages start being allowed in August.
The Senate was long seen as a roadblock to legalization, but the House's landslide vote in January, followed by a relentless advocacy campaign by supporters of same-sex marriage, increased the pressure on senators to allow a vote, which ended with the bill getting bipartisan approval last week.
"The Senate president kept her word, and I thank her for that," Ferri said. Fox also praised Paiva Weed for allowing the bill to pass despite her own opposition, telling the crowd at the signing ceremony that doing so is "scary" for the leader of a legislative chamber who fears losing his or her authority.
Paiva Weed was at the State House on Thursday but didn't attend the signing ceremony.
Ted Nesi ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) covers politics and the economy