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Rhode Island, Maryland Inch Closer To Marriage Equality

Two more states may soon join Massachusetts, Iowa, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia in expanding marriage to gay and lesbian residents. Yesterday, lawmakers in the Rhode Island House and Senate introduced a same-sex measure just days after newly-minted Governor Lincoln Chafee (I) called on the legislature to swiftly legalize same-sex marriage, so that Rhode Island could “catch up to her New England neighbors”:

The two bills, reintroduced in the House by Rep. Arthur Handy, and in the Senate by Sen. Rhoda Perry, call for legalizing “civil marriage” between people of the same gender, while specifying that no religious institution would be required to marry same-sex couples if it goes against its teachings.

The House bill was co-signed by 29 lawmakers, including House Speaker Gordon D. Fox, who is openly gay. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed (D) opposes gay marriage, but her spokesman said she won’t block a vote on the legislation.

Similarly, LGBT advocates in Maryland hope that since Attorney General Douglas Gansler issued an opinion allowing the state to recognize unions performed elsewhere — thus permitting couples to simply travel to DC — lawmakers interested in maintaining marriage revenues in the state may be more inclined to support the measure. “We really feel like 2011 is the year,” Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of Equality Maryland told the Washington Post, pointing out that Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr — who has long opposed marriage — “has given his blessing to a committee realignment that all but ensures that a gay-marriage measure will make it to the Senate floor during this year’s session.”

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Still, marriage is not a done deal in either state. Advocates in Rhode Island believe they have the votes for repeal in the legislature, describing this as the “best chance in a decade,” although they concede that the bill may have a harder time making it out of the judiciary committee in the Senate. They maintain that the Governor’s commitment to the issue, as well as his political independence, may help sway key votes. In Maryland, meanwhile, moderate Democrats in Maryland have yet to embrace the policy. In fact, this week, the Senate’s minority leader announced that he plans to “introduce a bill that would create civil unions for gay and straight couples,” possibly clouding the marriage issue. In a phone interview with me this afternoon, Meneses-Sheets called the civil unions bill “definitely a distraction” but said she was “confident” that allies would understand the difference between the two measures. She predicted that a marriage bill will easily make it out of the Senate, but will face challenges in the House, where marriage advocates lost several key votes in the midterms. “We are cautiously optimistic,” she told me.

During his re-election bid, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) suggested that he would sign a marriage bill and has since reiterated his support.