PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - The Rhode Island Senate voted 26-12 on Wednesday afternoon to approve a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, a historic victory for its supporters that almost certainly means gay nuptials will be allowed in the Ocean State starting Aug. 1.
"I am always proud to be a Rhode Islander, but never more so than today," Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a strong supporter of same-sex marriage who has said he will sign the bill when it reaches his desk, said in a statement.
The House Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the Senate's revised same-sex marriage bill on Tuesday, and a vote by the full House will take place on Thursday if it gets approved by the committee, a spokesman said, meaning it could be sent to Chafee for his signature by the end of next week.
- The vote: See how your local lawmaker voted
- In-Depth: How the Senate changed on marriage
- PDF: Read the Senate same-sex marriage bill
House lawmakers approved their own same-sex marriage bill by an overwhelming margin back in January, and they are expected to pass the Senate's revised bill easily. Same-sex marriage bills have been introduced in Rhode Island repeatedly since 1997, but none had ever gotten out of committee until this year.
Supporters erupted in cheers and gave the senators a standing ovation after the vote. Sen. Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, the bill's lead sponsor, declared that "the eyes of the nation are upon us, and we are poised to become the 10th state in the nation to join the force of equality that is sweeping our great nation."
'No longer be an outlier'
Rhode Island is the only state in New England where same-sex marriage remains illegal, and Chafee said it "will no longer be an outlier" if the bill passes. "We will have the welcome mat out. We will be open for business, and we will once again affirm our legacy as a place that is tolerant and appreciative of diversity."
A WPRI 12 poll last year found 56% of Rhode Island voters favored legalizing same-sex marriage, with 36% opposed.
The Senate debate lasted from about 4:30 until the vote at 5:45 p.m. The chamber's top two Democrats - Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed and Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio - were among the dozen who voted against the bill.
The Senate rejected an amendment introduced by Sen. Frank Ciccone, D-Providence, to instead hold a voter referendum in 2014 on same-sex marriage, by a vote of 28-10 . Paiva Weed split with the same-sex marriage opponents on that measure and voted against holding a referendum.
'I've been unable to sleep'
The final speech before the vote was a dramatic one by Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence, who hadn't said what she would do. "I am a practicing Catholic. ... I am a Catholic, week in and week out," she explained, adding: "Shame on you who chastise me and make fun of me for my Catholicism."
"I struggled with this for days and weeks. ... I've been unable to sleep," Goodwin said, describing it as the hardest vote in her 26 years as a lawmaker. She said she was convinced to support the bill in the end because she witnessed the love of her friends and constituents who are in same-sex relationships.
Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, also cited his religious beliefs when he spoke in opposition to the bill. "The Bible is clear: God ordained marriage between one man and one woman," he said.
Metts, who is black, also rejected comparisons to the 1960s civil rights movement, saying: "I can change my sexual preference tonight if I want to, but I can't change my color."
A more lighthearted reference to religion came from Sen. James Doyle, D-Pawtucket, who quipped: "If the first thing that our Lord asks me is why did I vote that way on same-sex marriage, then I'm doing pretty good."
Republicans unite in support
Among those who rose in support of the bill were two senators whose positions had been in question until Tuesday, when they voted to send the bill to the floor and from the Judiciary Committee: William Conley, D-East Providence, and Leo Raptakis, D-Coventry.
"I believe that it is our responsibility as legislators to make this decision, and I am proud to accept that responsibility today," Conley said.
The Senate's five-member Republican caucus supported same-sex marriage unanimously, which national groups said was a first for any legislative caucus from either party anywhere in the nation.
"Freedom is a powerful thing," said Sen. Dawson Hodgson, R-North Kingstown. He added: "Allowing gays and lesbians the equal protection of our marriage laws will not affect our marriages. It's consistent with this greatest American value."
Sen. Edward O'Neill, a Lincoln independent, expressed his opposition in less vociferous terms than Metts, describing the traditional definition of marriage as "a core value." But, he said, "Regardless of the outcome, I wish you all the best and will respect the outcome of this vote today."
Pressure grew on top Dems
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 and will be eliminated under the terms of the Senate bill.
The Senate was long seen as a roadblock to legalizing gay marriage in Rhode Island due to opposition from three of the chamber's Democratic leaders - Paiva Weed, Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick.
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. The measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in a 7-4 vote on Tuesday afternoon.
In addition to Paiva Weed, Ruggerio and McCaffrey, nine other senators voted against the same-sex marriage bill: Ciccone, Metts, O'Neill, Marc Cote, Lou DiPalma, Walter Felag, Frank Lombardi and Roger Picard.
Ferri expects House passage
A crowd began gathering long before the debate and greeted some senators with applause. Opponents outside held signs urging senators to reject the bill, and their singing could be heard inside the chamber during the debate.
The Senate marriage bill sponsored by Nesselbush differs from the House-passed legislation because it contains more expansive protections for religious groups. She said the protections would "act as a shield" for religious groups but would "not act as a sword to advance discrimination."
Rep. Frank Ferri, who is openly gay, was on hand for the Senate debate and described himself as "ecstatic" that his side is on the verge of victory. "I always felt a majority of people were for this," Ferri, D-Warwick, told WPRI.com. "We just had to prove it. That's why we had to do all this work."
Ferri acknowledged some House lawmakers have "a little concern" about the beefed-up religious exemptions in the Senate bill and said they would seek clarification. "But it's not something that's going to kill it," he said.