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PROVIDENCE â€“ Monday was a day for gay and lesbian Rhode Islanders to whoop and cheer.
They were cheering for Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who signed an executive order requiring the state to officially recognize the same-sex unions of couples who were married elsewhere but live here.
At several points during his announcement, Chafee made it clear that he wants his action to be one step toward allowing full gay marriage rights in Rhode Island.
â€śAre we overdue or what?â€ť he asked the friendly audience. â€śThe home of Roger Williams? Câ€™mon, letâ€™s go.â€ť Several hands went up when the governor asked who in the crowd had been married in other states.
â€śIt warms my heart,â€ť said Pawtucket Sen. Donna Nesslebush, who identifies herself as the only openly gay member of the RI Senate, after Chafee signed the order and handed her one of the ceremonial pens. â€śItâ€™s personal for me. I can see my lifestyle and my relationship taken as seriously and treated equally to other relationships.â€ť
Nesslebush joined the throngs of gay and lesbian Rhode Islanders, and their friends and supporters, who jammed the Governorâ€™s Stateroom to overflowing to watch Chafee sign what they call an â€śhistoricâ€ť order.
Nesslebush, who is also a Pawtucket Municipal Court judge, said she has crossed the border on numerous occasions to perform the wedding ceremonies for many of the people in the room who were forced to go to other states to be married.
â€śThis is a great day for Rhode Island; it means important legal quandaries at the state level have been settled â€“ death certificates, birth certificates, dealing with state agencies on issues concerning same-sex marriage,â€ť Nesslebush said. â€śIt means that Rhode Island is moving forward on the issue.
â€śIt doesnâ€™t affect us at the federal level,â€ť the senator acknowledged. â€śThere are still legal quandaries there, and since state and federal law intersect in so many ways, such as with taxes and pensions. Because pensions are regulated by a federal statute, the interplay here with state pensions will be an interesting issue.â€ť
Asked when she thought the Senate would approve gay marriage, Nesslebush said, â€śI would hope it is next year. Do I know that? I donâ€™t know it for sure but we will continue to work tirelessly until we get it. It is my hope â€” and prayer, frankly â€” that we have it next year.â€ť The Senate is generally seen as the chamber of the General Assembly that is recalcitrant about same-sex unions. A message seeking comment from Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed drew no comment Monday
Same-sex couples still can not marry in Rhode Island, nor can they divorce, since a 2007 RI Supreme Court ruling denied that right to them, and there are other rights that canâ€™t be granted by executive order, such as allowing joint tax filings, because the federal government gives no recognition to gay couples.
"Despite long-standing Rhode Island law respecting out-of-state marriages, and a formal 2007 opinion (from then-Attorney General Patrick Lynch), there remains confusion and inconsistency within state departments and agencies regarding the recognition of out-of-state same-sex marriages,â€ť Chafee said. â€śFar too many Rhode Island couples have encountered problems with the state failing to consistently recognize the validity of their marriage, causing unnecessary difficulty, anxiety, and expense.
â€śThis executive order sends a clear message to married Rhode Islanders, regardless of their sexual orientation, that they can and should rely on their marriage to protect them and their families in important ways," he said.
Chafee, a long-time supporter of same-sex marriage who made the issue one of the highlights in his 2011 inaugural address, said the executive order has been in the works for some time, but President Barack Obamaâ€™s statement last week that he believes that gays should have equal marriage rights added â€śmomentumâ€ť that led him to hasten his own announcement.
â€śThis is a great, historic day for the state of Rhode Island,â€ť said Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) a group that has been pushing for same-sex marriage for several years in the General Assembly. â€śThe stateâ€™s chief executive has affirmed the idea that all families, all partners and all individuals should be protected, recognized and treated equally under the law.â€ť
Not everyone welcomed Chafeeâ€™s action, however.
Christopher Plante, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage Rhode Island, told The Times, â€śIt seems whenever the governor does not get his way, he chooses to issue an executive order thumbing his nose at the democratic process. The legislature last session chose not to act on same sex marriage because they did not have the votes because they knew the people didnâ€™t want it.â€ť
House Speaker Gordon Fox, the first openly gay man to achieve what is often called the most powerful office in the state, issued a written statement that said: "This is another step that gets us further down the path toward same-sex marriage. I personally appreciate Governor Chafee's continued support of this issue and I look forward to reviewing the details of his executive order."
Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts also welcomed the executive order.
"As I have said for many years,â€ť she said in a written statement, â€śI support full marriage equality for lesbian and gay Rhode Islanders. I applaud the Governor's decision to affirm the legal recognition of marriages entered into in other states. It is an issue of basic fairness and equality."
U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, who is also gay, released the following statement: "As a result of Governor Chafee's leadership, our state has come another step closer to acknowledging that two adults in a loving and committed relationship should have their commitment to one another recognized as marriage. I applaud Governor Chafee for his courageous and bold action."
Karen L. Loewy, senior staff attorney with Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), who worked with the Governor's office on the order, said, "The executive order will have immediate positive impact on married same-sex couples, who now will be able to receive consistent, equal treatment from their state government."
A message seeking comment from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence drew no response Monday.