As the Senate prepared to vote on the bill that would legalize same-sex marriage yesterday, Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland was elated that her hard work and dedication might finally pay off.
“I’ve been working for this,” explained Garland, president of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches.
During a phone interview yesterday, Garland said in the past weekend alone she had canvassed door-to-door, made public speeches and attended a rally in support of marriage equality. While on the phone, she was headed to the State House to advocate for passage of this bill.
“We need to encourage senators to stand up for love and commitment,” said Garland, who is a minister with United Church of Christ.
The Senate voted for passage of both Senate Bill 38 and its companion, House Bill 5015, with a vote of 26-12. Just as with the Senate Judiciary Committee’s decision on Tuesday to move the bills to a vote, supporters of same-sex marriage who were present at the vote erupted into cheers. Many embraced one another, while others had tears in their eyes.
Garland saw Tuesday’s committee vote and yesterday’s floor vote as some of the final hurdles for same-sex marriage in Rhode Island.
With the Senate passing the bill, Garland said, “we expect the House to adopt the same bill as the Senate, with amendment, and then it will go to the governor to sign.”
Since the bills’ initial passage in the House on Jan. 24, an amendment to protect the rights of religious institutions and organizations has been added. The House will now need to vote to approve that amendment.
Garland feels the amendment, which reads, “each religious institution has exclusive control over its own religious doctrine, policy and teachings regarding who may marry within its faith, and on what terms,” was unnecessary.
“I think it may be a compromise some senators were looking for,” said Garland, when asked about her feelings toward the amendment. “But clergy have always had the option to perform a wedding or not.”
Representative Frank Ferri, who co-sponsors the legislation on the House side, said that previous legislation would not have infringed on the rights of religious institutions but admits that message might have gotten lost.
During a phone interview yesterday, Ferri recalled a recent meeting where a Catholic man was against same-sex marriage. When Ferri told the man that his church would not be forced to perform same-sex ceremonies, Ferri says the man changed his opinion.
While he felt the committee should have voted for the issue to be decided by the public in the next election, Senator Michael McCaffrey, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says he feels the amendment allowing those protections “should be in there.”
While studying laws in different states regarding protections for religious institutions, McCaffrey says the protections vary, but Rhode Island seems to have it right.
“I think we are probably right in the middle of the road on that,” said McCaffrey when asked if the protections were appropriate or too liberal.
Similar to McCaffrey, the Rhode Island Catholic Conference released a statement saying they were “appreciative that exemptions for religious organizations were included in the bill.”
The Conference also wrote that they were “disappointed” in the committee’s decision to pass the bill.
“Not only did the committee vote to redefine marriage, they failed to allow the voters of Rhode Island to be heard on this critical issue through a referendum.”
They also commended those senators who supported “traditional marriage despite tremendous pressure from well-funded special interest groups.”
Darrell Lee, co-founder of the Faith Alliance of Rhode Island, attended Tuesday’s vote and saw it as a predictor of what was to come yesterday.
“To me, [Tuesday’s vote] means they have their votes lined up on the floor,” said the minister.
He too was disappointed that the committee voted to “redefine marriage” instead of for a referendum.
“Whether they are religious or not, they cannot deny the impact this will have on religious organizations, on education, on society,” said Lee.
Although he is from an organization that represents 140 Christian organizations in the state, Lee said he is not trying to push faith but was instead “expressing concern about what family has been in this country.”
In the hallway in front of the Senate Committee Hearing Room on Tuesday, Lee spoke briefly with Ray Sullivan, campaign director of Rhode Island United for Marriage. Although he said they would agree to disagree, Lee could not deny the work the grassroots organization did.
Sullivan saw Tuesday’s vote as a victory and was prepared to see the bill debated before the full Senate.
“It is a testimony to the tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders who stepped up and supported this movement,” said Sullivan.
According to a press release from the organization, Rhode Islanders United is the largest grassroots issue campaign in Rhode Island History that resulted in hundreds of volunteers knocking on over 25,000 doors, making 12,000 phone calls, 24,511 conversations with Rhode Islanders about marriage equality and 1,631 constituent letters delivered to the General Assembly urging for marriage equality.
Prior to Tuesday’s committee vote, lead sponsor Senator Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket) said that this carefully crafted bill would provide “essential religious exemptions,” protecting the “sanctity of religion,” but prevented the law from being used as a sword.
“This is a historic piece of legislation on a historic day,” said Nesselbush.
In a statement release just after the Senate’s vote yesterday, Sullivan said this was a historic day in the making since his organization began this journey in 1997.
“When we began this campaign in January, many thought we’d never succeed in the Senate. But, thanks to the tireless efforts of the many volunteers who knocked on more than 25,000 doors, made more than 12,000 calls and sent nearly 2,000 letters to their legislators – we did it,” said Sullivan. “We are elated, but our work is not yet done. We look forward to ensuring Representatives hear from their constituents in support of S38 as it goes back to the House for a final vote.”
Prior to yesterday’s vote, Larry Berman, spokesman for Speaker of the House Gordon Fox, seemed confident that the bill would pass in the Senate and return to the House with the newly added amendment.
“We are fine with that, I imagine,” said Berman in regard to the amendment. He added that Fox, a longtime supporter of marriage equality, was thrilled with the Senate Judiciary Committee’s decision.
Now that the bill has passed in the Senate, Berman says a hearing on Senate Bill 38 and House Bill 5015 with amendment in front of the House Judiciary Committee is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, and a vote before the full House could occur as early as May 2.