In a 26-12 vote, the Rhode Island Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would allow same-sex marriage in the state, the last in New England to approve such a measure.
The House of Representatives voted 51-19 on Jan. 25 to approve that chamber's version of the bill; the legislation now goes to Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who has pledged his support.
With Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed's announcement of the vote count at 5:45 pm, Rhode Island moved one step closer to allowing gay couples to marry.
Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket, North Providence), the lead sponsor of the bill and only openly gay member of the chamber, called the vote a "historic moment" that was "designed to undo years of discrimination" against same-sex couples.
"The eyes of the nation are upon us," said Nesselbush.
Citing Pres. Barack Obama's recent statements that Americans will not truly be free until gays are treated equally, and the passage in the Pledge of Allegiance calling for "liberty and justice for all," Nesselbush added: "this bill would move us one giant step forward toward those ideals."
Nesselbush also noted that the religious exemptions in the bill woud "act as a shield to protect all religions and all religious organizations but not as a sword to protect discrimination."
Sen. Frank Ciccone III (D-Providence, North Providence) tried to reintroduce an amendment, which the Senate Judiciary Committee had killed on Tuesday afternoon, that would put the issue before voters in a referendum, but senators defeated the measure, 28-10.
Freshman Sen. William Conley (D-East Providence), seen as a key vote on the Judiciary Committee in approving the bill, noted that Rhode Island has a tradition ensuring that "all churches and faiths are protected from the government — when the state defines a civil marriage, it can not redefine religious beliefs."
In announcing his support of the bill, Conley added: "As a Catholic and a legislator, I recognize that to protect our religious freedom, we must protect the freedom of others — it is our responsibility as legislators to make this decision, and I am proud to accept that responsibility today."
Republican Sen. Dawson Hodgson (East Greenwich, North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Narragansett), whose entire caucus announced its support of the bill earlier this week, urged Senate members to consider the measure in terms of their role in upholding the law, rather than through the prism of religion.
"Even if your conscience or your faith could never countenance gay marriage, you can and you should vote for this bill," Hodgson said.
Serious as the issue was, there was some levity in the proceedings, thanks to Sen. James Doyle (D-Pawtucket).
"If the first thing our Creator asks me is 'Why did you vote that way on same sex marriage,' I'm doing pretty good," Doyle said to laughter in the chamber.