In a historic vote, the Rhode Island House of Representatives passed the same-sex marriage bill 51-19 on Thursday evening. It was a vote that was met with cheers from the supporters who filled the galleries in House chambers.
But proponents don’t have an assured victory yet, since the bill will now head to the Senate, which has long been viewed as a place where the bill will face its fiercest opposition.
Senator Michael McCaffrey said yesterday he has “no timeline” for when the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which he is the chair, will hear the bill. He plans to discuss the scheduling of upcoming hearings with Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed. Both McCaffrey and Paiva-Weed are vocal opponents of same-sex marriage, and McCaffrey said he believes it should be a ballot question. Senator Frank Ciccone, who also opposes same-sex marriage, recently introduced a bill that would put the definition of marriage as “between a man and a woman” on the ballot. McCaffrey is one of the 10 co-sponsors of that legislation.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a supporter of marriage equality who has recently called it both a civil rights and an economic development issue, does not support a referendum on same-sex marriage, and hopes the legislature will make the ultimate decision. However, his constitutional power would not allow him to veto Ciccone’s bill should the Senate and the House pass it, since it deals with amending the Constitution.
On the flipside, 10 senators have also signed on to Sen. Donna Nesselbush’s bill to allow same-sex marriage in Rhode Island. When a Judiciary meeting is finally scheduled – McCaffrey would not speculate on whether it would be in weeks or months – he said both Nesselbush’s and Ciccone’s bills would be heard on the same date.
McCaffrey did not want to speculate on the divide between the House and Senate when it comes to prioritizing the same-sex marriage legislation. As a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage, McCaffrey added that he would await the results of pending U.S. Supreme Court rulings on Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
“My stance is pretty clear,” said McCaffrey.
At Thursday’s vote, those legislators who testified in favor of the bill urged the Senate to take up the same-sex marriage issue sooner rather than later.
House Minority Leader Brian Newberry urged the Senate not to “hold [the bill] hostage” or “hold it out to dry.” He said he hoped the Senate would move along with the process quickly and not use the bill as a “bargaining chip.” Proponents said the sooner they finish up with the marriage equality issue, the sooner they can get to issues like the economy.
The stance of those who testified against the bill on the floor was much the same as those who testified at the public hearings. They said the civil unions bill, passed in 2010, granted same-sex couples equal rights and protection, while the idea of allowing same-sex marriage changes the definition of marriage and violates natural law.
Rep. Joseph Trillo (R-Warwick) said, “We’re about to rewrite the history of the world,” by allowing same-sex marriage, and Democrat Rep. Arthur Corvese called the bill “an irrevocable societal game changer.” Corvese also said the bill is less “live and let live” and more “comply or else.”
Yet others who were once opposed to the bill, like Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello, said he was in full support of it this session.
“I think society is changing,” he said, adding, “That’s why it’s happening today and not 300 years ago.”
After about an hour and a half of testimony, the House voted for the first time on the legislation, which would allow same-sex couples to wed in the Ocean State. Rhode Island is the only state in New England that does not allow same-sex marriage, though it does recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Ten states currently allow same-sex marriages.
Rep. Frank Ferri, who appeared last week on MSNBC to talk about the historic vote, said he was “relieved” after the vote on Thursday.
“It’s a good feeling to have finally gotten to this point where people understand how this affects us,” said Ferri, who has been married to his husband, Tony, since 2006. The two were wed in Canada.
Ferri said he believes one of the biggest issues preventing representatives and senators from voting in favor of the bill is the stronghold of the Catholic Church, which he said has threatened certain representatives with ex-communication – Ferri was raised Catholic but said he no longer attends Catholic services.
When it comes to the Senate, he hopes they’ll “do the right thing” and pass the bill.
Now the battle over the bill will ramp up on both sides, as the National Organization for Marriage, who opposes same-sex marriage, and their counterparts, Rhode Islanders United For Marriage, take the coming weeks to lobby their stances.
But some, like McCaffrey, might prove unshakeable. This November he was challenged by same-sex marriage advocate Laura Pisaturo, a fellow Democrat who lost out in the September primaries: “The gay marriage people ran against me last time and weren’t successful,” said McCaffrey.