Rhode Island House committee passes gay-marriage bill

A House committee in Rhode Island unanimously approved a bill to legalize marriage equality Tuesday afternoon, sending the measure to the floor and setting it up for a vote by the full chamber later this week.

Eleven of the 13 members on the Judiciary Committee who were present voted to move the bill out of committee, including two legislators – John DeSimone (D-Providence) and Doreen Costa (R-North Kingstown), a tea party darling and the panel’s sole Republican – who many political observers believe are opposed to the measure.

An absent legislator, Donna Walsh (D-Charlestown), is a cosponsor of the bill. Another representative, Charlene Lima (D-Cranston, Providence) arrived after the vote and indicated she supported it. 

Handy.pngThe bill, HB5015, sponsored by Rep. Art Handy (D-Cranston), allows two consenting individuals who meet particular criteria to marry, regardless of gender. The bill also has provisions that would convert existing same-sex civil unions into civil marriages, and would repeal the discriminatory “Corvese Amendment,” a broadly written clause approved in 2011 to ensure passage of Rhode Island’s civil unions bill, which allows religious-based institutions, businesses and individuals even tangentially connected to such institutions to refuse to recognize the validity of civil unions. For instance, under the Corvese Amendment, a Catholic hospital could deny same-sex partners visitation rights, or universities with a religious affiliation could deny family or medical leave if a person’s partner becomes ill.

Supporters of marriage equality praised the committee’s vote, which marked the first time a marriage-equality bill has been approved by a committee of the Rhode Island General Assembly. A bill to legalize same-sex marriage was introduced in the House Judiciary Committee in 2001, but was defeated, with openly gay U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), at the time a state representative from Providence, casting the sole vote in favor of it.

“After hearing testimony from everyday Rhode Islanders – gay and straight, friends, family and community leaders – the committee resoundingly endorsed extending the unique protections and recognition of marriage to all loving, committed couples,” Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, said in a statement. “This historic, affirmative vote moves us one step closer to finally making the Ocean State a place where all families are valued, respected and treated equally.

“We are grateful to Speaker Fox, his leadership team, Rep. Handy and all our sponsors for their commitment to acting swiftly on this important legislation and we look forward to having this bill debated by the full House,” Sullivan continued. “Momentum is clearly with us, but we’re not taking anything for granted and will double our efforts in the coming days to grow the broad and bipartisan coalition of supportive legislators in both chambers.”

The marriage-equality bill has been placed on the House schedule for Thursday, Jan. 24, when legislators will debate and vote whether to approve it. Democrats, led by Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence), an out gay man, control the lower chamber 69-6, but the bulk of opposition is expected to come from within the Democratic caucus.

While the bill has 42 co-sponsors, four more than are needed to pass the 75-member House, opponents are expected to offer amendments to defeat or weaken the bill, particularly amendments that invoke or make appeals to religion as a means of fracturing the pro-equality coalition in the heavily Catholic state. Opponents may also seek to force a statewide referendum on the law. Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an Independent, has promised to veto any bill that would put marriage equality to a popular vote.

If the bill passes the House, it will face a much steeper climb in the Senate, where Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport) is opposed. Although Paiva-Weed has agreed to allow a committee vote in the upper chamber, the measure could still potentially die the Judiciary Committee, where only four of 10 committee members are on record as supporting marriage equality. 

UPDATE: The Providence Journal reports that Gov. Chafee issued a statement praising the committee’s actions, declaring it a “significant step forward toward marriage equality.”

“As I noted in my State of the State address last week, there are a number of reasons why we should bring marriage equality to Rhode Island this year,” Chafee said in a statement. “It’s a civil rights issue, it is an issue of basic fairness, and it is an economic development issue. We are at an economic disadvantage with our neighboring states when we do not ‘have the welcome mat out’ for all those who want to work here and contribute to our economy.”

Rhode Island is the only state in New England that does not recognize same-sex marriage. 

[Photo: Rep. Art Handy, chief sponsor of the marriage equality bill (courtesy of R.I. General Assembly website).]

[Correction: The original article stated, correctly, that Charlene Lima was absent from the committee vote. There was subsequently some confusion as to whether her late arrival and expressed support for the bill would be counted by the House committee clerk as a vote in favor of the measure, which would bring the number of legislators to 12. The official tally remains at 11-0, with Lima recorded as “absent.”] 

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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