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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 25, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 4
Rhode Island House passes marriage equality bill - Measure faces uncertain fate in Senate
Section One
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Rhode Island House passes marriage equality bill - Measure faces uncertain fate in Senate

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

A bill to legalize same-sex marriage passed the Rhode Island House of Representatives on January 24. The vote was 51-19.

The issue was never in doubt, since the bill came to the floor with 42 co-sponsors in the 75-member House. Speaker Gordon Fox is Gay and was a leading supporter of the measure. The House deputy majority leader, Rep. Frank Ferri, is also openly Gay.

Strongly Roman Catholic, Rhode Island is the last holdout against marriage equality in New England. Marriage equality legislation has been introduced in the state every year since 1997, but this is the first time the proposal has come to the floor of the House for debate and a vote.

HEAVY LOBBYING
The real challenge to equality is expected to come in the Senate, where Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed opposes the bill. Paiva-Weed promised she would let the measure go through the Senate Judiciary Committee when it passed the House.

Supporters say that if it gets to the Senate floor, the measure will pass, but anti-equality forces think they have the votes to defeat the bill, and state senators are being lobbied heavily by both sides.

State Sen. Frank Ciccone, like Paiva-Weed an anti-equality Democrat, has introduced a constitutional amendment that would limit marriage to opposite-sex couples. His proposal has been referred to committee, but even if it passed the Senate it is thought to have no chance of passing the House.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, strongly supports marriage equality and said he would oppose efforts to put the issue up for a popular vote. Last year he signed an executive order requiring the state to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

PUBLIC OPINION SHIFT
In 2011 Fox dropped a similar marriage bill after he concluded it would not pass the Senate. Instead, lawmakers passed civil unions for same-sex couples. This time, supporters say, there has been a turnaround in public opinion, and even former opponents of equality may give the proposal a second look.

'It's a harder 'no' vote than people may have thought,' Rep. Art Handy, the bill's prime sponsor, said.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the turnabout is that equality supporters made a concerted effort to elect sympathetic candidates to the legislature in last year's election.

'We began planning for that by reaching out to pro-equality candidates and working with pro-equality incumbents,' said Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage.

As a result, he said, the group helped elect nine of the 10 new House members and the five new senators who support equality.

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