December 18, 2012
By Jacob Combs
Finally: Rhode Island Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed announced yesterday that she would allow a marriage equality vote in the Senate, should the House succeed in passing an equal marriage bill, the Providence Journal reported. Paiva Weed is a long-time opponent of marriage equality, and has refused to even allow a vote on the issue in the past, so her announcement is a good sign for equality advocates in the state.
This does not in any way mean that marriage equality is a done deal in the Ocean State, but it is certainly a significant new development in a state that remains the only one in New England to bar same-sex couples from marrying. Rhode Island began offering civil unions in 2011, but a remarkably low number of couples have taken advantage of the provision, likely due to the wide latitude it provides for religious exemptions, which puts couples at risk of discrimination.
House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is openly gay, has consistently vowed to bring marriage equality legislation to a vote in his chamber next year. Supporters of marriage equality did well in Rhode Island during the November election, with several new allies in the House and a few in the Senate, which will likely prove the main obstacle to a marriage equality bill’s final passage. Gov. Lincoln Chaffee, an Independent, supports marriage equality and would sign a bill should it come to his desk.
In her Monday announcement, Paiva Weed said that she expects the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote on any bill that passes the House. She explicitly stated that the Senate will not take any action on its own, but did say that she “anticipate[s] a vote in the Senate Judiciary committee.” For now, that means the onus is on Fox to start the process when the legislature reconvenes in 2013.
A caveat: marriage equality legislation in Rhode Island has a long, frustrating history of stop-and-start not-quite-progress. In February, I wrote a post titled “Will 2012 finally be the year for marriage equality in Rhode Island?” In it, I noted that a marriage equality bill had been unsuccessfully introduced into the Rhode Island state legislature every year since 1997 without ever coming up for a vote. 2012 turned out to be no exception to that rule.
As is evident now, the answer to the titular question of that post was ‘no.’ The fate of a marriage equality bill in the Rhode Island Senate is yet unclear, but even if such a bill passes the House and fails in the Senate, it will still be a sign of progress in a state where public support for equal marriage rights is strong and where equality looks like it will be realized, with luck and hard work, at some point in the next few years.