Change has arrived in Rhode Island, and the Rev. Gene Dyszylewski is thrilled that faith leaders from the United Church of Christ came through when it counted. Rhode Island became the latest state to pass a law that allows marriage equality to all citizens, extending to LGBT couples the right to have their marriages legally recognized.
"Things are happening quickly in Rhode Island," said Dyszylewski, a UCC minister and the religious chair of Rhode Island For Marriage. "The winds of change are blowing strongly in Rhode Island with the sweet fragrance of justice and compassion. After 10 years of work on this project, I fluctuate from elation to numbness."
The Rhode Island Senate voted 26-12 in favor of the bill just one day after the legislation passed a committee hearing. Before senators filed into the State House to deliberate and vote on the amendment, they were greeted outside the Senate chamber by religious leaders, many from the UCC, who support marriage equality.
"I always thought that the religious community would play a role in this struggle but I didn't expect to be in a prominent role going down to the wire," DyszIewski said. "It is great to walk into the State House and see as many clergy as senators."
The bill must return to the state House for vote on minor changes to language made by the Senate, but that should be a formality since the House passed it, 51-19, in January. Gov. Lincoln Chaffee, who has said he supports marriage equality legislation, must then sign the bill. The first legal weddings for same-sex couples can take place on Aug. 1.
The Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer, the UCC's executive for LGBT concerns, congratulated the work of R.I. LGBT advocates for their tireless work, and celebrated the victory with them.
"This is a great victory for equality in Rhode Island and I am so proud of the effort by people of faith there in urging leaders to bring marriage equality to that state," he said. "We support equality because our faith compels us to treat everyone with worth and dignity, and to celebrate the love and commitment two people make when they marry each other."
UCC General Minister and President the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black was in Providence on April 7, at a rally for marriage equality alongside Unitarian Universalist Association president the Rev. Peter Morales.
Susan Rotblat-Walker, who chairs the UCC's Office of General Ministries Board of Directors and is on the Executive Council, said Black's visit and participation at the event with Moreales "was a watershed moment in the struggle."
The adoption of this marriage equality bill marks a victorious clean sweep of New England. With Rhode Island, all six New England states recognize same-sex marriages.
"New England has a tradition of tolerance," DyszIewski said. "I am surprised that Rhode Island is last on the issue of marriage equality, but we made it. When given a choice, Rhode Islanders favor tolerance and affirmation over rejection and condemnation. Respect for diversity is in our DNA. This is in no small part because of the wisdom of the Colony's founder, Roger Williams, a Puritan Congregational minister. I am pleased we are carrying on this legacy."
Rhode Island is the fourth state in the last six months to affirm marriage equality, with Maine, Maryland and Washington all passing public referendums during the November 2012 elections. The votes indicate how public opinion has changed on the issue of same-sex marriage. In a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey, a majority (52 percent) of Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, compared to 42 percent who are opposed. That survey also showed that along religious lines, more than 8-in-10 (81 percent) Jewish Americans, roughly three-quarters (76 percent) of religiously unaffiliated Americans, 59 percent of Hispanic Catholics, 58 percent of white Catholics, and 55 percent of white mainline Protestants favor allowing LGBT couples to marry legally.
The UCC's General Synod affirmed full marriage equality for all couples in 2005, and there are now more than 1,000 open and affirming churches registered with the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns.
Illinois, New Jersey and Delaware are also considering marriage equality legislation. Rhode Island joins the previous nine states, along with Washington, D.C., that permit same-sex marriages: Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Washington.