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Rhode Island Senate to vote on marriage equality bill today

Marriage equality

By Jacob Combs

After a very, very long road for LGBT rights advocates in Rhode Island, the state Senate will hold a final vote today on a proposed marriage equality bill, just one day after a Senate committee approved the bill 7-4.

Equal marriage legislation has been introduced in the Rhode Island legislature every year since 1997.  In 2011, the state began offering same-sex couples the opportunity to enroll in civil unions, although the unions were criticized for having overly broad religious exemptions and were unpopular in the state.

Rhode Island is the only state in New England that does not allow same-sex couples to wed, and would become the 10th in the country to provide equal marriage rights to couples regardless of their sexual orientation.

The Rhode Island House approved marriage equality legislation in January on a 51-19 vote.  During yesterday’s vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, an alternate marriage equality bill proposed by Sen. Frank Ciccone that would have put the issue to a popular vote was rejected by a 6-5 margin.  One senator, William Conley, Jr., voted both for SB38, the marriage equality bill, and Sen. Ciccone’s referendum bill.  Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, who opposes marriage equality is not a member of the committee, voted ex officio against SB38 and in favor of Ciccone’s bill.

Yesterday, all five Republican members of the Rhode Island Senate announced that they will vote yes on SB38.  According to Metro Weekly, 16 Senate Democrats have announced at some point in the last year that they will also vote in favor of marriage equality legislation.  Combined, those 21 senators would comprise more than the majority of the chamber’s 38 members needed for SB38 to pass.

If the marriage bill is approved, it will be returned to the House for a final vote on religious exemptions language added to the legislation in the Senate before going to Gov. Chafee’s desk for approval.  The extra House vote will largely be a formality, and the AP reports that House Speaker Gordon Fox expects a final vote could happen as soon as next week.  (The Senate could also approve the original House bill, H5015, which would go straight to the governor’s desk, although this outcome is less likely.)

As the AP pointed out today in a profile of Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, the fate of marriage equality legislation this year has been markedly different from past years largely because Paiva Weed, who opposes equal marriage rights, has finally allowed legislation to come up for a vote.  “I will not vote for it,” she told the AP during an interview for the piece. “But I have committed to having a full, fair and open debate.”

The Rhode Island Senate will convene today at 4:00 p.m.  SB38 is the first item on the agenda, and a livestream link can be found here.

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