Committee approval 'giant step' for same-sex marriage

House will vote on bill Thursday


The 12 members present at Tuesday’s House Committee on Judiciary meeting voted unanimously in favor of the same-sex marriage bill sponsored by Cranston Rep. Art Handy. The only member absent for the vote was Rep. Donna Walsh of Charlestown, who previously voiced her support of the same-sex marriage bill.

The bill is scheduled for a vote by the full House on Thursday. Many inside the House of Representatives have expressed their confidence that the bill will pass this session.

For proponents of same-sex marriage, the unanimous decision to send it to its first-ever floor vote was a major milestone. In the 17 years that similar legislation has been introduced, this week was the first time it was voted on in committee since 2001. In 2001, then-Rep. David Cicilline was the only legislator to vote in favor of it. Never before has it made it to a full floor vote.

Rep. Art Handy, who has sponsored similar marriage equality legislation for the past 11 years, said he was honored to be a part of such a monumental moment.

“I was excited about the history of the moment and the role I was playing in it,” he said shortly after the committee vote, which was greeted by a standing ovation of the spectators present in the room.

Handy said he felt overwhelmed by the unanimous support from the committee, especially on an issue that he and so many of his colleagues hold close to their hearts.

“‘Important’ seems like an understatement,” he said.

“It’s so emotional,” said Rep. Frank Ferri, who welled up with tears when the Judiciary Committee voiced their unanimous approval of the bill. “It’s very personal to us.”

Ferri, who testified with fellow marriage equality supporters Governor Lincoln Chafee and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo at last week’s hearing, has been with his husband, Tony, for 32 years. The two were married in Canada in 2006.

Ferri recalled the decades-long struggle that homosexuals in Rhode Island have faced. He recounted how a civil rights bill passed just 18 years ago in 1995 granted homosexuals equal opportunities for employment and housing, something that ended 11 years of lobbying for equal rights.

“Today didn’t happen in a vacuum,” said Ferri, who called the vote a “giant step.”

Governor Lincoln Chafee issued a statement shortly after the committee’s approval of the bill, saying he is pleased to see the same-sex marriage legislation move forward. He referenced his recent State of the State Address, in which he called the marriage equality issue a “civil rights issue” and 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,” he wrote in a statement. “Rhode Island already lags behind all of our New England neighbors on this issue; we should swiftly remedy that for the good of our economy and the rights of our citizens. With this afternoon’s vote, we are one step closer to the day when gay and lesbian Rhode Islanders can enjoy the same fundamental rights, benefits and privileges as all other citizens of our state. It is my hope that that day will come soon. I urge the leaders of the House and Senate to call the roll, and I will be proud to sign this important legislation when it reaches my desk.”

But proponents of marriage equality tried not to get too excited following Tuesday's vote.

“We’re not taking anything for granted,” said Laura Pisaturo, a Warwick resident and former Senate candidate. “We look forward to continuing the conversation and debate in the Senate.”

Before the bill has a chance of getting to the Senate floor, it first needs to be heard by the Senate Committee on Judiciary, whose chairman, Warwick Senator Michael McCaffrey, has maintained his position that marriage is “between a man and a woman.”

It was McCaffrey that Pisaturo unsuccessfully challenged in the September primary.

Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, echoed Pisaturo, in saying that they’re getting closer to making marriage equality a reality in Rhode Island, but aren’t there yet.

“I’m feeling good,” he said. “This is the beginning of the process of … finally winning this fight.”

Pisaturo, Sullivan and Ferri all expressed their gratitude to Speaker Gordon Fox, House leadership and Rep. Handy for the help in the marriage equality debate.

At about 3 p.m. Tuesday, after roll call and the consideration of several solemnization of marriage bills, House Judiciary Committee chairwoman Rep. Edith Ajello turned her attention to House Bill 5015, the marriage equality bill.

“This is a truly historic moment,” she said.

Ajello said that those who argued against the bill just last week at the public hearing often brought ideas of religion into the discussion.

“This is a separation of church and state issue,” said Ajello, noting that the bill allows religious groups and organizations to decide whether or not to perform same-sex marriages. “There are good religious people on both sides of this.”

Those who testified in favor of the marriage equality bill last week spoke about their personal experiences in same-sex relationships, or about the relationships of those they know and love.

Those who testified against marriage equality argued it was not a civil rights issue, and that civil unions already allow same-sex couples the equality they seek. Opponents also argued that marriage, by definition, is between a man and a woman, and that homosexual unions violate “natural order” because they cannot produce children.

During last week’s hearing, a rally in the Rotunda raged in opposition to same-sex marriage, but at Tuesday’s vote, it appeared that the opposition was mostly absent. The crowd present exchanged hugs and dried tears after the vote; only one man was overheard asking Rep. Doreen Costa of Exeter, “What happened?”

Of course, the committee’s vote only allows the full House the chance to discuss and debate the bill now, something that has never been done before. There is no date set for when the Senate version of the bill – sponsored by the openly gay Senator Donna Nesselbush – will be heard in committee.

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