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R.I. House committee clears same-sex marriage bill for final approval

R.I. House committee clears same-sex marriage bill for final approval

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island took one more step to becoming the nation’s 10th state to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry after a legislative panel voted Tuesday evening to forward same-sex marriage legislation to the full House for a final — and largely procedural — vote.

The outcome of Thursday’s House vote is not in doubt, as the House overwhelmingly passed an earlier version of the bill in January.

The Senate passed the bill by a comfortable margin last week, but it had to return to the House because of small changes made in the Senate.

There was little testimony at Tuesday’s brief hearing in the House Judiciary Committee — a big departure from the hours-long hearings earlier this year and in previous years that attracted hundreds of people on both sides of the debate. With the bill all but passed, most opponents stayed away.

Testimony focused on the changes made to the bill by the Senate. The bill that passed the House stated that religious institutions may set their own rules regarding who is eligible to marry within the faith and specifies that no religious leader is obligated to officiate at any marriage ceremony.

The Senate added language to ensure that groups like the Knights of Columbus aren’t legally obligated to provide facilities for same-sex weddings.

Supporters said they could live with the changes.

“We’re one step closer,” said Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket) and the bill’s sponsor in the Senate. “Every step is important and every step is exciting.”

Gov. Lincoln Chafee is expected to quickly sign the bill once it reaches his desk. The Independent governor has long supported same-sex marriage and said last week that he eagerly awaits the legislation’s arrival at his office.

The first same-sex marriages in Rhode Island would 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.

Bills to allow gay marriage in Rhode Island have been introduced since 1997, but never made it to a vote until this year.

Associated Press contributed to this report.
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