Rhode Island took one step closer to the legalization of same-sex marriage on Tuesday following Judiciary Committee passage of a bill that would allow gay couples to marry in the state.
With little debate, the 10-member Senate committee, which includes Sen. Lou Raptakis (D-Coventry, East Greenwich, West Warwick) and Sen. Dawson Hodgson (R-E.G., N.K., S.K. and Narragansett) voted 7-4 to pass the amended Senate Bill 38 (S38), sponsored by Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket). The bill defines marriage as "the legally recognized union" of two people, regardless of gender.
The seven Committee members who voted in favor of the bill include Sens. Stephen Archambault, William Conley, Paul Jabour, Erin Lynch, Nesselbush, Hodgson and Raptakis. Committee Chairman Mike McCaffrey, Sens. Frank Lombardi and Harold Metts, and Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, who used his optional right to vote ex officio, cast votes against.
The Judiciary Committee's decision sends the bill to the Senate floor for a vote by all 38 senators. A vote in the full Senate is scheduled for Wednesday at 4 p.m.
Raptakis said there were two reasons for his "yes" vote. One, he said, "I didn't want to be an obstructionist. I didn't want to deny the full Senate the chance to vote on what could be one of the most important votes in the Senate."
He also was convinced to change his vote because of changes in the language of the bill.
"The language that was added to expand protections for religious institutions, including churches and church property" was pivotal, Raptakis said.
"I'm pleased with the results," said Hodgson, who has been a supporter of same sex marriage since the beginning of the session. "I give the chairman a lot of credit ... and I'm proud of my colleagues," he said, noting 9 out of the 10 committee members stuck it out to the 5 a.m. end during the committee hearing last month.
“This is an incredible and historic step forward in the campaign to ensure all loving, committed couples in Rhode Island have the freedom to marry,” said Ray Sullivan, campaign director of Rhode Islanders United for Marriage. “We are pleased and proud that the members of the Judiciary Committee were so receptive to the thousands of their constituents who reached out and urged them to vote yes on Sen. Nesselbush’s bill. We will continue to connect the supermajority of Rhode Islanders who support marriage equality with their senators before a floor vote, and believe we have the momentum to achieve victory on this critical issue.”
The committee voted 6-5 to reject Sen. Frank Ciccone's bill, which would order a voter referendum on the issue in 2014. (On March 19, , citing feedback from their constituents as the reasoning behind the decision.)
"I think the committee made the right choice with the bills in front of them," said Hodgson.
If S38 is approved by the full Senate, it will be heard by the House Judiciary Committee next week. If approved there, as well as by the full House, the final stop for the bill would be the office of Gov. Lincoln Chafee, possibly by the end of next week, according to House officials. Chafee supports the legislation.
On Tuesday night, Raptakis said he wasn't sure how he would vote on the bill in the full Senate.
"I'm going to vote my conscious," he said. "I've got tonight to think about it."
As for Hodgson, he's optimistic. "I think it will pass handily. There's a real sense of being on the right side of history."
With additional reporting by Elizabeth McNamara.