Rhode Island

BREAKING: Rhode Island Senate votes in favor of marriage equality bill

Rhode Island state capitol in Providence.

Rhode Island state capitol in Providence.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The Rhode Island state Senate voted moments ago in favor of a marriage equality bill, a crucial vote that puts Rhode Island on course to become the tenth U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage.

The full Senate voted 26-12 in favor of the bill, just one day after the Judiciary committee voted 7-4 to advance the measure to the Senate floor.

Rhode Island state capitol in Providence.

The Senate also voted 10-28 to defeat a proposed amendment to put the issue to popular vote on the 2014 ballot; that same amendment was rejected by the Judiciary committee on Tuesday.

The Senate had long been seen as the true test for same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, currently the only state in New England without marriage equality.

Marriage equality legislation was first introduced in Rhode Island’s General Assembly in 1997, only to languish on the legislative agenda without a vote. Last fall, House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is gay, vowed to hold a vote early in the session, a move that focused the attention of supporters on the Senate.

Supporters framed the issue as one of civil rights, arguing in daylong legislative hearings that gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights and protections given to opposite-sex married couples.

The Catholic Church was the most significant opponent, with Bishop Thomas Tobin urging lawmakers to defeat what he called an “immoral and unnecessary” change to traditional marriage law.

The bill now returns to the state House for a largely procedural vote on small changes made to the bill on the Senate side. The House previously voted 51-19 in January in favor of the bill.

A hearing on the bill is expected in the House on Tuesday, ahead of the vote next Thursday, May 2.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an Independent and supporter of same-sex marriage, has promised to sign the bill.

The first marriages could take place Aug. 1, when the legislation would take effect. Civil unions would no longer be available to same-sex couples as of that date, though the state would continue to recognize existing civil unions. Lawmakers approved civil unions two years ago, though few couples have sought them.

Rhode Island would join nine other states — Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington state — and the District of Columbia, in allowing marriage equality for gay couples.

Recent polling finds that 60 percent of Rhode Island voters support legalizing same-sex marriage.

On Tuesday, the Delaware state House also approved a marriage equality bill, which must now be considered by the Senate. As currently written, the Delaware law would take effect July 1 if it passes the Democrat-controlled Senate. If passed, Delaware would become the tenth state to enact marriage equality legislation, and Rhode Island would become the eleventh.

Same-sex marriage bills are also pending in the current legislative sessions in Illinois and Minnesota.

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