Rhode Island Gay Marriage Vote: House Passes Marriage Equality Bill, Governor Will Sign Into Law

On Thursday the Rhode Island House voted overwhelmingly to legalize same sex marriage in a 56-15 vote, making it the final New England state to do so (pending Governor Lincoln Chafee's signature) — an important advance for civil rights in the heavily-Catholic state, and a source of pride for the region.

Cheers of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” reportedly broke out among state legislatures, as the bill was swept to the south steps of the state house for an immediate and public signing by Governor Lincoln Chafee.

The Rhode Island House and Senate had both passed preliminary versions of the legislation earlier this year, championed by House Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence), who is openly gay. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Newport) allowed a vote, despite being personally opposed. Civil unions, which state lawmakers approved two years ago, will no longer be available to same-sex couples — though existing unions will continue to be recognized.

“The unprecedented momentum for marriage across the country continues,” said HRC President Chad Griffin, “With Rhode Island becoming the first state in 2013 to say yes to marriage equality. As the Supreme Court deliberates the fundamental right to marry the person you love, these historic and bipartisan victories keep mounting and prove the country is ready for marriage equality.” 

“When we started,” recalls Jenn Steinfeld, one of the co-founders of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, “I knew every single person in our database. Now I go to events and I don’t know anybody. I think that’s wonderful. Seeing the tide change, seeing people who aren’t personally affected supporting us, it’s just been amazing.”

Governor Lincoln Chafee, a onetime Republican turned Independent, has been a vocal supporter of marriage equality. “There were no deals, no trades,” the governor said earlier this week at the Bloomberg News Headquarters in New York, citing the correlation between tolerance and economic prosperity as justification for his support. “Some people think that means florists and weddings, and in fact I don’t mean that at all. I mean it in a broader universe of a place that is welcoming to the younger generation, the creative generation, the entrepreneurs.”

This is in agreement with a new study from the Williams Institute last month that found that legalizing same sex marriage in Rhode Island would add $7 million to the state economy over a three-year period, due in part to a “surge in spending related to weddings by same-sex couples.” The study expected spending to generate $530,000 in state tax revenue and create 26 jobs.

According to a 2011 Public Policy Polling report, 50% of Rhode Islanders are in favor of legalizing same sex marriage, with 41% opposed, and 9% with no opinion. Young responders under 30 were overwhelmingly supportive, at a 62/31 rate.

Rhode Island joins nine other states and the District of Columbia to legalize marriage between gays and lesbians, or 16.1% of the total U.S. population. Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota and Nevada expected to follow suit later this year.

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T. Chase Meacham

Student at Georgetown University studying theater and government. Writer, director, and Secretary of the Arts for the Georgetown University Student Association.

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