The legislation passed easily in the House in January, but the Senate vote was seen as a true test for the bill. But it passed 26-12, paving the way for the state to allow same-sex couples to say their vows.
Senator Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket), the bill’s main sponsor in the Rhode Island Senate, stated of the victory:
“This is a historic piece of legislation, one that literally has been in the works for more than 20 years. This is something that undoes centuries of discrimination against gay and lesbian couples.”
The bill’s chances in the Senate improved when the body’s President Teresa Palva Weed said she would let the bill move forward, even though she opposes gay marriage. The Senate’s five Republicans also announced this week that they would support the measure.
If the gay marriage bill passes in Rhode Island, same-sex nuptials could start taking place on August 1, when the legislation would take effect. However, civil unions would no longer be available as of that date. The state would continue to recognize the civil unions.
Supporters of the Rhode Island same sex marriage bill framed the problem as one of civil rights. They argued for the bill during daylong legislative hearings, explaining that gay and lesbian couples should have the same rights and protections as heterosexual married couples currently have.
The Catholic Church was the most significant opponent of the bill. But the legislation states that religious institutions will be allowed to set their own rules about who is eligible to marry within the faith. It also specifies that no religious leader is required to officiate at any marriage ceremony. No religious group is required to provide facilities or services related to a same-sex marriage.
The exemption helped to soothe concerns from some lawmakers that clergy would face lawsuits for turning away same sex couples. After Rhode Island, Deleware could become the next state to approve gay marriage.