PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Rhode Island has become the nation's 10th state to allow gay and lesbian couples to wed, after a 16-year effort to extend marriage rights in this heavily Roman Catholic state.
Gays, lesbians, their friends and families erupted into cheers Thursday following a final 56-15 vote in the Rhode Island House, and then again an hour later when Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed the bill into law on the Statehouse steps.
"Democracy feels good, doesn't it?" said House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, who is gay. Fox struggled to keep his composure as he addressed the crowd at the Statehouse, looking over at his longtime partner, Marcus LaFond. "This tells me our relationship does matter. It means that we mean something."
The first marriages will take place Aug. 1, when the new law takes effect.
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.
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.
On Thursday, Tobin repeated his opposition, writing in a letter to the state's Catholics that "homosexual acts are ... always sinful."
"Catholics should examine their consciences very carefully before deciding whether or not to endorse same-sex relationships or attend same-sex ceremonies," Tobin wrote. "To do so might harm their relationship with God."
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 Aug. 1, though the state would continue to recognize existing civil unions. Lawmakers approved civil unions two years ago, though few couples have sought them.
The first marriages will take place Aug. 1, when the new law takes effect. Raymond Beausejour, 66, used to photograph weddings, but the gay North Providence man never expected he would have one himself.
"I've been waiting 32 years for this day, and I never thought it would come in my lifetime," said Beausejour, who has been with his partner for 32 years. "For the first time in my life, I feel welcome in my own state."
Delaware could be the next state to approve gay marriage. Legislation legalizing same-sex marriage has narrowly passed the Delaware House and now awaits a vote in the state Senate.
Advocates in Rhode Island say that while they're proud the state is the 10th to legalize gay marriage, they expect other states to quickly follow as support for gay marriage grows around the country. According to polling experts at Gallup, 53 percent of Americans support giving gay and lesbian couples the right to marry, up from 27 percent in 1996.
Rep. Frank Ferri, D-Warwick, who lobbied for gay marriage before becoming a lawmaker himself, recalled that years ago he asked a sitting lawmaker if he would consider supporting same-sex marriage. "He said `I'll pour gasoline on my head and light myself on fire before that bill passes,"' Ferri recalled.
That has changed, said Ferri, who is gay. Ferri said he hopes Fox can marry him and his partner on Aug. 1, which also happens to be the couple's 32nd anniversary.
"Today a dream has come true," he said. "No more hiding in the shadows. No more being ashamed of who we are."