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Rhode Island Senate President says she will allow a marriage equality vote in 2013

Marriage equality

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.


  • 1. _BK_  |  December 18, 2012 at 9:39 am

    It's about time!

  • 2. skrekk  |  December 18, 2012 at 10:04 am

    You'd think passing marriage equality would be a simple matter in a state which was the very first secular government in the west.

  • 3. karen in kalifornia  |  December 18, 2012 at 10:18 am

    Except for the fact that the Italian American Catholic democrats favor extensive religious exemptions and got them into the CU bill. These exemptions AND individuals that work
    for those institutions ie. the numerous Catholic hospitals.
    Here's an ACLU press release from earlier this year stating that only 46 couples had applied for RI CUs.

  • 4. Straight Dave  |  December 18, 2012 at 10:19 am

    While we certainly can't count our chickens yet (note, MD in 2011), I think this is a pretty big deal. Her perpetual foot-dragging and unwillingness, at least publicly, to allow a vote, had a depressing effect on the rest of the legislature. It's very hard to get people to stick their necks out when they expect to just hit a brick wall anyway. Why bother to put in the effort.

    With some Cuomo-type lobbying by former Repub Chaffee, the collective mood might swing quickly. The time is sooooooooo right. After the election, it must be ultra clear that this issue isn't going away, and they also should know thay can't half-ass the cheap CU trick they tried last time. Here's hoping they come to their senses and decide to put the inevitable behind them soon.

  • 5. Bruce Stores  |  December 18, 2012 at 10:19 am

    Don't forget Rhode Island was the last of the 13 American colonies to sign on to becoming a state in the new United States of America. Its a heel dragging place.

  • 6. Straight Dave  |  December 18, 2012 at 10:23 am

    You'd think, yeah! But a lot has happened since the days of Roger Williams. Once RI became the most heavily Catholic state in the US, the Bishops began to work their influence on the govt.
    It keeps reminding me that for many people, religious freedom simply means my freedom from the other guy's religion, not the other guy's freedom from my religion.

  • 7. skrekk  |  December 18, 2012 at 11:20 am

    The irony there is that the vast majority of American Catholics support marriage equality, it's only the church hierarchy which confuses marriage with holy matrimony and opposes equal rights for gays.

  • 8. Bill S.  |  December 18, 2012 at 11:28 am

    I live in Rhode Island and I am not getting my hopes up. There are too many old Catholic Italian men in our legislature. Neither Governor Chafee nor Speaker Fox have any cachet in the state. It will have to come via court action, possibly a federal lawsuit.

    We can take solace in knowing that same-sex marriages performed elsewhere are recognized *as marriages* in Rhode Island. All a same-sex couple needs to do is drive 30 minutes at most to the border and get married, and they will be considered married under RI law.

  • 9. Fr. Bill  |  December 18, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    The religious exemptions in the RI Civil Unions Act are totally unacceptable especially for any civil marriage legislation. Also remember that RI is the poorhouse of New England when it comes to employment, income, education – you name it.

  • 10. Straight Dave  |  December 18, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    That's when religion tends to creep into the public picture in places where it doesn't belong. Sorry if anyone if offended, but that's what I tend to see happening. Religion has its fair place, but not in the halls of govt.

    I hope RI doesn't get a severely wattered-down bill. If they do, they're better off scrapping it for now. Since their residents can still get married 30 mins away in CT/MA, they should stand their ground until real equality arrives. If they agree to a wimpy bill, there won't be any motivation to go back and fix it soon. They have a better deal now from the other states, whose marriages would also get watered down by a new RI bill. There is absolutely no reason to let them *add* any new exceptions at this time.

  • 11. Bill S.  |  December 18, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    Chafee does not have nearly the same clout as Cuomo…in fact he has none and is not well respected in this state.

    This bill will not pass. There are too many old-school Italian Catholics in our legislature. All we can do is be thankful that marriages performed elsewhere are recognized *as marriages* in Rhode Island. Marriage equality in Rhode Island will have to come from a favorable court ruling.

  • 12. Straight Dave  |  December 18, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    Then let's hope they're at least forced to stand up and be counted. Self-preservation is a politician's strongest principle.

  • 13. Mike in Baltimore  |  December 18, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    In Maryland, a marriage equality bill twice passed the state House, but then twice failed in the state Senate.

    In 2011 (after the 2010 election in which a couple of the most vehement opponents were defeated), backers decided to start in the Senate, then go to the House with the bill. It finally passed the state Senate, then it failed in the House (the defeat included a couple of delegates who had co-sponsored the bill, then voted 'no'). It was only when Governor O'Malley personally got involved in the middle of 2011 and early 2012 did the bill pass both chambers.

    And in Maryland, the situation in the state Senate is similar to that in Rhode Island – Senate President (equivalent to Majority Leader in the US Senate) Mike Miller is against marriage equality, but allowed the chamber to vote on the issue. He did, to his credit, allow a vote on the bill every time the issue was introduced, and the issue came to the Senate floor for a vote (a total of four times).

    Maryland has a quirky signing procedure for bills – the bill must be signed by the Governor, the House leader (official title is 'Speaker of the House'), and the Senate President. Miller signed the marriage equality bill, and then split the scene as fast as he could. That's why the official photos of the signing ceremony show the Lt. Governor (who does not sign bills) as part of the signing ceremony.

  • 14. truthspew  |  December 18, 2012 at 11:12 pm

    As someone who spent a couple years in the fight here in RI I finally walked away in disgust. Our legislators are for lack of better words, fucking cowards!

    For example – last year we did indeed have the votes we needed in the house, as we did the year before that and the the year before that. But Pavia-Weed threatened to block it none the less. I wonder why she's changing her tune now?

    Mark my words – RI will not get equality through the legislature, we will get it through the judiciary!

  • 15. skrekk  |  December 19, 2012 at 12:04 am

    Personally I think the judiciary is the better route anyway since a legislative vote on the civil rights of a minority is just as offensive as a popular vote. Rights granted by a legislature can just as easily be taken away.

    But for those who are currently denied their rights I can't begrudge them gaining those rights by whatever method works.

  • 16. karen in kalifornia  |  December 19, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Recognized "as marriages" only as long as Chaffee or another supportive governor is in office. The recognition is executive policy not law.

  • 17. Straight Dave  |  December 19, 2012 at 10:27 am

    Are the RI supreme court cowards, too? …like they were in NY & WA. Are they elected/recalled?

    I seem to remember them not allowing a RI couple who got married in MA to get divorced in RI. And MA didn't allow the divorce because they weren't MA residents. Complete BS. Made them look like Texas

  • 18. Bill S.  |  December 19, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Rhode Island Supreme Court justices are not elected and cannot be recalled. For some reason MERI (Marriage Equality Rhode Island) is not confident that they would be able to win a legal challenge.

  • 19. Mike in Baltimore  |  December 19, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Maryland's judges are appointed by the Governor, and approved by the state Senate (similar to the Federal system).

    However, in Maryland judges are subject to a 'retain' vote within a specified period of time (I believe it's the first state-wide general election), and then periodically every few years after (I think it's more than five, but less than ten).

    There is a procedure for impeaching them, but the easier method is for removal by the 'Judicial Review Commission'.

    In my almost 40 years as a Maryland resident, I can't remember a judge losing a 'retain' vote, or being impeached, but several years ago, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge was removed by the Judicial Review Commission. I was in a jury pool when that 'removed judge' (before she was removed) told people the trial would last no more than two weeks. She said she had non-refundable tickets to vacation in mainland China, and she was NOT going to lose the trip because of the trial, so it would last for no more than two weeks. I was very glad to later be dismissed from that jury pool. If I had been on the jury for that trial, I might have made sure the jury deliberations lasted long enough to make the judge miss her trip.

    Her removal was not directly because of that one trial, but for other reasons. I'm sure, though, that that trial entered into the considerations, as her removal, in the words of the Judicial Review Commission, was (paraphrasing) 'for unjudicial acts and actions.'

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