January 15, 2013 at 8:39 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Chafee: Same-sex marriage is ‘long overdue’ in R.I.
Lincoln Chafee, Rhode Island, gay news, Washington Blade

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee speaks at a press conference on Monday that announced a coalition of groups in support of the state’s same-sex marriage law. (Photo courtesy of Christian Vareika)

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee on Monday said that extending marriage rights to same-sex couples is consistent with the civil and religious liberties his state’s founding fathers sought more than three centuries ago.

“First of all, it’s again coming back here in Rhode Island with another effort to pass what we should have passed a long time ago, considering our history as the first really to have tolerance in the colonies of the New World,” the governor told the Washington Blade a few hours after he joined other elected officials and advocates at a Providence church where they announced a coalition in support of the same-sex marriage bills state Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston) and lesbian state Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket) introduced earlier this month. “Roger Williams fled persecution and then enshrined here in 1663 in a royal charter granted by King Charles II, really the first liberties in civil and religious areas ever not only in the New World, but in the world. We’re celebrating the 350th anniversary of that 1663 charter this year, so we’re all getting reacquainted with those liberties that granted those many years ago.”

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the same-sex marriage bill later today.

Chafee, who signed Rhode Island’s civil unions bill into law in 2011 in spite of his own misgivings about it, signed an executive order last year ordering state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut and other jurisdictions. In spite of this mandate, Rhode Island remains the only New England state in which gays and lesbians cannot tie the knot.

“So many of us feel that this is long overdue here in Rhode Island the fact we’re trailing other New England states in passing marriage equality is added incentive to get it done this year on the 350th anniversary of the charter,” the governor said.

Chafee, a former Republican U.S. senator who became an independent before his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, spoke with the Blade less than a week after White House spokesperson Shin Inouye reaffirmed President Obama’s support of nuptials for gays and lesbians in response to a question about Rhode Island’s same-sex bills. Inouye also told the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper late last month that the president would vote for a same-sex marriage bill in the Illinois State Legislature if he were still a member of it.

Obama’s re-election campaign in late October urged voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington to support same-sex marriage referenda in their respective states. It also urged Minnesotans earlier in the year to vote against a proposal that would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman in their state’s constitution.

All three same-sex marriage referenda passed on Nov. 6, while Minnesota voters struck down the proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned nuptials for gays and lesbians in their state.

“Well you know better than I do what’s happening around the country, especially in the 2012 elections in the referenda that were out there and the success marriage equality had,” Chafee said in response to whether nuptials for same-sex couples in Rhode Island would resonate beyond New England. “I don’t know if it’s too earth-shattering when Rhode Island finally gets on board, but being a very heavily Roman Catholic state — we’re the most heavily Roman Catholic state in the country — that message would be important, that even our Roman Catholics here support marriage equality. And that is true.”

Gay House Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence) said earlier this month he remains committed to bringing the same-sex marriage measure to a full vote in his chamber by the end of January. Though she is opposed to nuptials for gays and lesbians, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Newport,) has also pledged to allow a vote on the issue in the Senate Judiciary Committee once the House approves it.

“They’re on the fast-track in the House,” Chafee said. “Here in Rhode Island in the Senate we’re counting the noses. I would hope that they deal with it quickly and let’s move on to the economic issues and other issues. I see this is also is an economic issue, but let’s pass this and I’ll sign it and we’ll tackle some of the more thornier issues out there.”

Chafee further referenced Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who was then-Senate President Pro Tempore of his state’s legislature in 2009 when his chamber voted 26-4 to approve a same-sex marriage bill, in spite of predictions that the margin would have been far closer.

“He said, let’s just call the roll. Just call the roll. Stop hemming and hawing and it was 26-4,” Chafee said. “That was back in 2009. I would think it would be even stronger here now. Call the roll. And that’s what I said at the press conference: Call the roll on history; Call the role on the rights of our gay, lesbian friends and neighbors and loved ones; call the roll on the economy and the economic issues that are important here.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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