Rhode Island Set to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

 
Gay marriage bill sponsor Sen. Donna Nesselbush, center, reacts seconds after the state senate passed a same-sex marriage bill Wednesday. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

The Rhode Island legislature has overwhelmingly voted to legalize same-sex marriage, setting it on a path to become the 10th state to allow the unions and creating a solid bloc of pro-gay marriage states in the Northeast.

The Senate vote in Rhode Island gives same-sex marriage advocates another victory and adds to the momentum behind their efforts. The vote was 26 in favor and 12 against, with all five Senate Republicans voting for the measure. It is believed to be the first time an entire legislative caucus has voted in favor of gay marriage in any state.

The measure will need to pass House again and a vote is expected May 2. In January, the bill cleared that chamber easily. Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent who strongly backs gay marriage, has said he will sign it. It will take effect Aug.1.

Rhode Island’s legalization of same-sex marriage comes a month after Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a law allowing same-sex civil unions in his state. Colorado’s law takes effect next Wednesday. That was seen as a crucial victory for supporters, giving them a foothold in a politically divided western state.

Adding Rhode Island, 10 states plus the District of Columbia will allow same-sex marriage, while five allow civil unions. Two of those states – Illinois and Delaware – are considering measures to legalize same-sex marriage this year. A bill has already passed the Illinois Senate, and advocates are optimistic a measure will pass this year in Delaware, where it cleared an initial vote Tuesday.

The dramatic shift in the same-sex marriage debate around the country – and the lingering divisions – illustrates the quickly changing politics of the issue for lawmakers and voters alike.

In Minnesota, the Democratic-controlled legislature could soon vote to legalize gay marriage by repealing the state’s current ban. Such a vote would come just a year after the then-GOP-controlled legislature voted to put a constitutional ban on the election ballot last fall. The measure was defeated, the first loss for any such ban in a statewide vote.

Gay marriage advocates have made political gains nationally as well. Polls have found historically high levels of support for the unions, and bipartisan support has begun to emerge in the U.S. Senate. Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Mark Kirk of Illinois have indicated their support for gay marriage this year.

There remains entrenched opposition among a majority of states, many of which have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage which would be difficult to reverse even if lawmakers wanted to.

Nevada illustrated the reality this week. The Senate approved a resolution to repeal the state’s constitutional ban. But even if it’s approved by both chambers this year, lawmakers would have to approve it again in 2015 before then giving voters the final say in a statewide vote in 2016.

At the same time, even states with solid Republican majorities and existing bans have seen the issue shift at their state capitols. In Indiana, for example, Republican lawmakers decided to put off a follow-up vote on a constitutional ban that would’ve put the issue before voters in 2014, much to the dismay of some conservative lawmakers and activists in the state.

There are now 34 states that forbid same-sex marriage, not including California which saw its Proposition 8 ban land before the Supreme Court.

That case is one of two before the court. Along with a challenge to Prop 8, the court is considering a challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex unions.

The court could decide the issue nationally or allow the current patchwork marriage scheme to continue. A ruling is expected this summer.

 
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