January 24, 2013 | by Michael K. Lavers
R.I. House approves same-sex marriage bill
Lincoln Chafee, Democratic National Convention, gay news, Washington Blade

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Rhode Island House of Representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would allow gays and lesbians to marry in the state.

The 51-19 vote came after lawmakers on both sides of the issue debated the measure for more than an hour.

“This bill is so important,” state Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston,) who introduced the proposal. “It is one of the most important things we’re going to do, and it’s historic.”

Deputy Majority Leader Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence) is among those who spoke against the bill. He described the measure as “an irrevocable societal game-changer” that would redefine the definition of marriage.

“Marriage is also significantly the biological unit of the family, promoting the well-being of children, providing them with a framework of identity and responsibility, creating a stable marital order and through this order sustaining a civil society,” Corvese said. “By redefining marriage, by breaking and disregarding the present parameters, you are not only destabilizing the marital order and by extension civil society, you are opening the door to further redefinition.”

State Rep. John Edwards (D-Portsmouth/Tiverton) countered.

“This will be a game-changer, but I believe it is a game-changer that will make things better for our state and it will allow all those people right now who truly love each other to enter the same contract that I or my wife and most of the people in this room currently enjoy,” he said. “This is not a religious issue. This is not about the natural order. It is strictly a civil rights issue.”

State Rep. Maria Cimini (D-Providence) discussed how she and her husband tied the knot in the Rhode Island capital less than three years ago.

“He and I went with a check for $34 to Providence City Hall,” she said. “No one raised an eye brow. No one flinched. We filled out a form and I was able to get married. And yet my family members — my aunts who have been together for over 20 years have had to spend a lot of money to protect their assets, even though their love and their commitment is greater than I’ve known at this point being in such a new relationship. We have colleagues in this room who have spent decades with their partners, with their husbands. They have had to leave this state to commit to [each other.]”

Gay state Rep. Frank Ferri (D-Warwick) noted he and his partner, Tony Carparco, will celebrate their 32nd anniversary in August as he emotionally spoke in support of the bill.

“You can define marriage any way you want,” Ferri said. “We’ve had a marriage for 32 years.”

The vote comes two days after the House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the measure.

Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Newport) remains opposed to marriage rights for same-sex couples, but she has pledged she would allow a vote on the proposal in the Senate Judiciary Committee once the House approves it.

Rhode Island remains the only New England state without a same-sex marriage law. Governor Lincoln Chafee told the Washington Blade during an interview earlier this month that he feels nuptials for gays and lesbians are “long overdue” in the Ocean State.

“There are certain legislative votes that can fairly be characterized as ‘historic,’” he said in a statement after the House approved the bill. “The Rhode Island House of Representatives’ overwhelming passage of marriage equality legislation is one such vote.”

Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, agreed.

“Today is a proud and historic day,” he said. “For the first time, the Rhode Island House of Representatives has affirmed that all families in our state should have access to the unique protection and recognition that only civil marriage provides.”

Handy echoed Sullivan’s sentiments after the vote.

“This issue is about fairness and allowing all Rhode Islanders to have equal access to the rights and responsibilities that come with marriage, but marriage is about so much more than legal protections,” he said. “My wife and I have been married since 1997, and as we’ve worked together to raise our son, the value of having a committed, strong family has become more apparent to us over time. All Rhode Islanders deserve to enjoy that security and support, and deserve to have their family recognized as equal to others. It feels good to see how far we’ve come in Rhode Island toward valuing all families, and I know we are close to the day when marriage equality becomes law here.”

The Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Marriage and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence are among the groups that remain opposed to any effort to extend nuptials to gays and lesbians in the Ocean State.

“Today’s vote by the House of Representatives undermines the common good of our state and strikes against the very foundation of our culture,” the Rhode Island Catholic Conference said in a statement that also referred to the state’s nearly 10 percent unemployment rate and the plight of those without homes during the cold spell that brought single digit temperatures to the region earlier this week. “Unfortunately, this bill redefines marriage and fails to protect the religious liberties of many faith communities and individuals of conscience who believe that marriage is a union of one man and one woman. As witnessed in other states, those who support traditional marriage will most likely be punished by costly lawsuits and cultural persecution.”

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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