One final vote stands between Rhode Island joining the rest of New England and four other states in allowing gay couples to marry.
While there will be plenty of emotion when the House votes to pass the bill Thursday, the outcome isn’t in doubt.
House members voted overwhelmingly in January to approve the bill and now must vote again only to sign off on small changes made by the Senate, which passed the legislation 26-12 last week.
“We’ll have that bill on the House floor on Thursday and then we’ll make history,” said House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence. Fox is gay and helped push the legislation through his chamber. Asked whether anything could derail the bill at this point, he smiled, saying, “I think it’s a pretty good outlook.”
Even opponents are conceding that they’ve lost the long legislative debate over gay marriage in Rhode Island.
“I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to stop the train at this stage,” said Scott Spear, a spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage-Rhode Island chapter.
Opponents had hoped the Senate would defeat the bill, or at least send the question of gay marriage to the voters as a ballot referendum. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed opposes gay marriage but promised supporters she would not interfere with the bill’s progress through the Senate.
The first gay marriages in Rhode Island 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.
The bill states 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 and no religious group is required to provide facilities or services related to a gay marriage.
While ministers already cannot be forced to marry anyone, the exemption helped ease the bill’s passage this year.
The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a final hearing on the legislation Tuesday before it goes to the House floor. While there’s little chance of the bill being defeated now, the debate is still likely to be emotional as supporters savor their victory.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee is expected to quickly sign the bill once it reaches his desk. The independent governor has long supported gay marriage and said Wednesday that he eagerly awaits the legislation’s arrival at his office.
Bills to allow gay marriage in Rhode Island have been introduced since 1997, but never made it to a vote until this year.
Votes on major issues often come at the end of the session, but the gay marriage vote occurred with several weeks to go before lawmakers adjourn for the year. By tackling the issue early, lawmakers said they’ll be able to focus more time and attention to other matters, including gun control, Chafee’s $8.2 billion budget proposal for the next fiscal year and measures designed to boost the state’s lackluster economy.
“Let’s get this historic issue behind us and get on with the people’s work we were elected to do,” Sen. Donna Nesselbush said during the Senate’s debate on gay marriage. Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, was the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate.
Nine states and the District of Columbia already allow gay marriage. Lawmakers in Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey and Oregon are also considering proposals this year to legalize gay marriage.