by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Rhode Island is poised to become the 10th marriage equality state, after a legalization bill passed the state Senate by a convincing 26-12 margin April 25. Hundreds of spectators burst into cheers as the vote was announced.
The state's House of Representatives has already passed a similar measure, and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee has promised to sign the bill once it reaches his desk.
'I'm very much looking forward to signing this,' he told the Associated Press as he congratulated supporters.
Because the Senate version of the bill includes a more expansive religious exemption than the House version, the measure now returns to the House for final approval. The House Judiciary Committee could take up the revised marriage bill as soon as April 30.
The Senate vote showed bipartisan support for equality, with all five Republican senators voting for the bill. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed opposed the measure, as did several other Roman Catholic Democrats. Weed, however, promised to allow the bill to come up for a vote, despite her personal opposition.
Democratic Sen. Maryellen Goodwin said she lost sleep over her vote but decided, despite opposition from the Catholic Church, to vote 'on the side of love.'
'I'm a practicing Catholic. I'm proud to be a Catholic,' she said, adding that it was the personal stories of Gays, Lesbians and their families in her district that convinced her. 'I struggled with this for days, for weeks. It's certainly not an easy vote.'
Almost 64% of Rhode Islanders identify as Catholic - the highest proportion of any state - and church officials were strident in their opposition to the legislation.
Senate Republican Leader Dennis Algiere said the decision to support equality came down to core Republican principles.
'This is an issue of fairness, equality and civil rights,' Algiere said. 'Those are our values, and we stand by them.'
DELAWARE: DECISION TIME
Meanwhile, in Delaware, the state House approved a marriage bill on April 23 by a narrow 23-18 vote. The bill now goes to the Senate, where the vote is also expected to be close.
Democratic Gov. Jack Markell has promised to sign the bill if it passes the Democratic-led legislature.
'It's the right thing to do,' said Markell, who met with supporters of the bill in his Legislative Hall office immediately after the House vote, in which five Democrats broke ranks with their party to oppose the measure.
In contrast with Rhode Island, only one Republican, Rep. Michael Ramone of Newark, voted for the bill.
Much of the debate centered on the religious exemption provision, which opponents said is not adequate to protect First Amendment religious rights.
While the bill does not force religious officials to perform same-sex marriages, business owners who refuse to provide marriage-related services for same-sex couples could be subject to discrimination claims.
'If there's an exemption for right of conscience, I don't see it,' said Jordan Lorence, an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing 'religious liberties' group.
Rep. Melanie George Smith, the prime sponsor of the bill, said state law already prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the marriage bill does not change that in any way.
'We respect your right to believe what you believe,' she told fellow lawmakers who oppose the bill.
NEVADA: TEEING UP
In Nevada, a constitutional amendment requiring the state to recognize all marriages regardless of the gender of the married couple passed the state Senate by a vote of 12 to 9, and now goes to the Assembly. If it passes the legislature, the amendment will go on a future ballot to be ratified by voters.
One Republican, Sen. Ben Kieckhefer of Reno, voted with the Democratic majority.
In a particularly dramatic moment, Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, a 10-year veteran of the legislature, publicly declared for the first time that he is Gay.
'I'm Black. I'm Gay,' Atkinson said in a trembling voice after recalling his father's interracial remarriage that would have been banned earlier in American history.
'I know this is the first time many of you have heard me say that I am a Black, Gay male.'
Atkinson went on to challenge the argument that same-sex marriage threatens any other definition of marriage.
'If this hurts your marriage, then your marriage was in trouble in the first place,' Atkinson added.
'This is a vote to let the people vote for equality,' said Sen. Pat Spearman, an African-American Lesbian minister. Spearman spoke passionately of growing up in the 1960s in the Deep South and being spit on because she is Black.
'I know what it feels like when people want to push 'separate but equal,' Spearman said. 'Separate is not equal.'
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