In a 51-19 vote, the Rhode Island House of Representatives approved a bill allowing same-sex marriage Thursday afternoon, without Woonsocket's support.
Representatives Stephen M. Casey (D – Dist. 50, Woonsocket), Lisa Baldelli Hunt (D – Dist. 49, Woonsocket) and Robert D. Phillips (D – Dist. 51, Woonsocket) all voted against the measure.
For Casey, the vote, heralded as an historic step toward equity for same-sex couples, was his first as a freshman member of the House. He said his vote against the bill was what the majority of his constituents asked him to do during his campaign, in person, in e-mails and during phone calls. "It came up quite a bit," Casey said.
Casey said he learned during discussions with Hunt and Phillips on the issue that their constituents were also opposed to the measure.
When asked whether he'd have made a different choice if he had only himself to think about, "I'm not sure about that," Casey said, "I would need to still think long and hard. I believe we are in an age where it's important to respect and understand and tolerate all individuals."
Had his constituents asked him to support the measure, Casey said, "I would have voted differently without hesitation."
Phillips also said his vote was based on his constituents' overwhelming opposition to same sex marriage, both when he was first elected and recently.
When asked how he would have voted personally, "To be honest with you, that's irrelevant," Phillips said, "What I feel personally doesn't matter." It's his job to be committed to what his voters want him to do, he said.
The bill now goes to the state Senate, where leadership has said no action will be taken on it until spring.
“Obviously, this issue is about fairness and allowing all Rhode Islanders to have equal access to the rights and responsibilities that come with marriage, but marriage is about so much more than legal protections," said Rep. Art Handy (D-Dist. 18, Cranston), the bill's primary sponsor. This was the 11th year Handy had introduced same sex marriage legislation.
"My wife and I have been married since 1997, and as we’ve worked together to raise our son, the value of having a committed, strong family has become more apparent to us over time. All Rhode Islanders deserve to enjoy that security and support, and deserve to have their family recognized as equal to others. It feels good to see how far we’ve come in Rhode Island toward valuing all families, and I know we are close to the day when marriage equality becomes law here."
Gov. Lincoln Chafee was also enthusiastic.
"There are certain legislative votes that can fairly be characterized as “historic.” The Rhode Island House of Representatives’ overwhelming passage of marriage equality legislation is one such vote," he said in a statement.
Both Chafee and Handy noted that the bill faces challenges in the Senate. Senate President Theresa Paiva Weed opposes same sex marriage, as does Sen. Michael J. McCaffrey (D-Dist. 29, Warwick), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the bill goes next.
Chafee concluded, "Although this vote is indeed historic, there is still a long way to go. Now that the House has swiftly acted, I urge Senate leadership to 'call the roll' – for our economy, for our gay and lesbian friends and neighbors, and for history."
The bill reiterates the right of religious institutions to set their own guidelines for marriage eligibility within their faith.
Rhode Island is the only New England state that does not allow same-sex marriage. Currently nine states and Washington, D.C., allow same-sex couples to marry.