After 16-Year Fight, Rhode Island Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage

May 2, 2013

Governor Lincoln Chafee presents Rhode Island's new same-sex marriage law to openly gay lawmakers, House Speaker Gordon Fox and state Senator Donna Nesselbush
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

To the delight of a crowd of hundreds of people in front of the Statehouse, Governor Lincoln Chafee on Thursday evening signed into law legislation making Rhode Island the 10th state to legalize same-sex marriage. Two companion bills forming the basis for the law sped through the General Assembly in recent weeks, in sharp contrast to how the issue of same-sex marriage languished for the preceding 16 years.

The signing ceremony followed shortly after final approval of the legislation in the House of Representatives, where lawmakers voted 56-15 in favor of both the House and Senate versions.

Supporters hailed the day as a victory for love, tolerance and equality, while at least one opponent, Representative Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence) warned of unforeseen consequences from overturning what he called natural law.

Any doubts about the fate of the same-sex marriage battle melted away when the more socially conservative state Senate voted in favor, 26-12, in late April. The House offered initial approval, on an overwhelming margin, in January.

Supporters offered credit to many for the long-sought victory, ranging from former Rep Michael Pisaturo who introduced Rhode Island's first same-sex marriage bill in 1997, and liberal and openly gay lawmakers who moved the ball forward, to Rhode Islanders United for Marriage -- which ran this years's energetic grassroots campaign -- Chafee, House Speaker Gordon Fox, and even Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, a personal opponent of same-sex marriage who nonetheless made a smart political calculation in letting the issue move forward in that chamber. Pisaturo was in the House chamber for the vote.

Chafee, who championed same-sex marriage during his inaugural address in 2011, offered these parting words during the signing ceremony:

"I want to say a few words to our many, many LGBT family members, friends, and neighbors all across Rhode Island. I know that you have been waiting for this day to come. I know that you have loved ones who dreamed this would happen, but did not live to see it. But I am proud to say that now, at long last, you are free to marry the person you love."

A short time later, Fox defended his support for a poorly subscribed civil union measure in 2011, arguing it was necessary to build a foundation level of support for same-sex marriage. The speaker was openly emotional for much of the House vote on the issue and he briefly broke down weeping during the signing ceremony while speaking of his 15-year partner, Marcus LaFond, and how kind and compassionate LaFond has been in caring for Fox's elderly mother.

Fox, who became the first openly gay speaker in the US when he ascended to the post in 2010, even recalled a scathing YouTube satirical video that scorned him in the past for not more aggressively promoting same-sex marriage; Fox said the video was fair game as a form of advocacy, adding that it was small d democracy -- the actions of grassroots activists and ordinary citizens making their views known to lawmakers that made the difference this year. Fox echoed Chafee's description of how Rhode Island's lively experiment in democracy continued to unfold:

“It does work, it does work. But in order to work it needs you and it needs us. You have to make known what your concerns are. You have to be engaged, you have to be involved, you have to stand up.”

Rhode Islanders United for Marriage offered this reaction, via statement:

"This is truly a proud day for Rhode Island. Gov. Chafee's signature on this historic marriage equality legislation ensures that all families are recognized, valued and respected equally under the law," said Ray Sullivan, Rhode Islanders United for Marriage campaign director.

"We owe a deep debt of gratitude to Speaker Gordon Fox, Representatives Arthur Handy and Frank Ferri for their commitment and leadership in the House, to Senators Donna Nesselbush and Joshua Miller and former Senator Rhoda Perry for their advocacy in the Senate, and to the tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders who made phone calls, knocked doors and wrote letters as part of the largest grassroots, legislative campaign in our state's history.”

Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin, a leading opponent of same-sex marriage, said this in a pastoral letter distributed via email:

At this moment of cultural change, it is important to affirm the teaching of the Church, based on God’s word, that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2357) and always sinful. And because “same-sex marriages” are clearly contrary to God’s plan for the human family, and therefore objectively sinful, Catholics should examine their consciences very carefully before deciding whether or not to endorse same-sex relationships or attend same-sex ceremonies, realizing that to do so might harm their relationship with God and cause significant scandal to others.

Despite this serious regression in the public morality of our state we need to recognize that there are other major issues that demand our attention. We must continue to engage our culture, remembering that Jesus called us to be “the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” (Mt 5:13-14) Be assured, therefore, that the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Providence will continue its mission of preaching the Gospel, advocating for what is right and just, and serving the needs of our community to the very best of our ability.

Christopher Plante, the head of the National Organization for Marriage Rhode Island, said prior to the House vote that his organization will look closely at possible efforts next year to oust lawmakers who went back on their word about not supporting same-sex marriage. Yet the fast change of public attitude in support of the issue may make that a non-starter as a political strategy in Rhode Island.

This post has been updated.