PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Rhode Island on Thursday became the nation's 10th state to allow gay and lesbian couples to wed, as a 16-year effort to extend marriage rights in this heavily Catholic state ended with the triumphant cheers of hundreds of gays, lesbians, their families and friends.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed the bill into law on the Statehouse steps Thursday evening following a final 56-15 vote in the House. The first weddings will take place Aug. 1, when the law takes effect.
"It's a day we knew would come, but it seemed so far away for so many years," said Rep. Frank Ferri, D-Warwick, who is gay and was elected to the House after years as a gay marriage advocate. "So many people worked so hard for this day."
The day was bittersweet for Deborah Tevyaw, whose wife, state corrections officer Pat Baker, succumbed to lung cancer two years ago. Months before she died, Baker, relying on an oxygen tank, angrily told lawmakers that it was unfair that Tevyaw wasn't considered her wife in Rhode Island despite their marriage in Massachusetts.
"I'm ecstatic, but sad she's not here to see this," Tevyaw said. "I'm sure she's watching, but she's not here next to me. Before she died, she told me, `I started this, and now I'm leaving it in your hands.' We worked hard for this. There were petitions, door knocking, phone calls. I think people decided, `just let people be happy."'
Once consigned to the political fringe, gay marriage advocates succeeded this year thanks to a sprawling lobbying effort that included support from organized labor leaders, religious clergy, leaders including Chafee and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and hundreds of volunteers. Their efforts overcame the opposition of the Roman Catholic church and lawmakers including Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, who voted no but allowed the issue to come to a vote anyway.
"Political power doesn't always start at the Statehouse," said Dawn Euer, deputy campaign director at Rhode Islanders United for Marriage.
Supporters framed the issue as one of civil rights, arguing in daylong legislative hearings that gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights and protections given to opposite-sex married couples. The Catholic Church was the most significant opponent, with Bishop Thomas Tobin urging lawmakers to defeat what he called an "immoral and unnecessary" change to traditional marriage law.
The Rhode Island legislation states that religious institutions may set their own rules regarding who is eligible to marry within the faith and specifies that no religious leader is obligated to officiate at any marriage ceremony and no religious group is required to provide facilities or services related to a gay marriage.
While ministers already cannot be forced to marry anyone, the exemption helped assuage concerns from some lawmakers that clergy could face lawsuits for abiding by their religious convictions.
Under the new law, civil unions will no longer be available to same-sex couples as of July 1, though the state would continue to recognize existing civil unions. Lawmakers approved civil unions two years ago, though few couples have sought them.
Delaware could be the next state to approve gay marriage. Legislation legalizing same-sex marriage narrowly passed the Delaware House on Tuesday and now awaits a vote in the state Senate.