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Rhode Island's first gay marriages are set for August 1, now that Gov. Lincoln Chafee has signed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the state.
The law was enacted almost immediately after it passed the state's House of Representatives on Thursday, with Gov. Chafee proudly saying that "you are now free to marry the person you love," Reuters reports.
With Rhode Island becoming the sixth and final New England state to approve marriage equality -- and the 10th to do so nationwide -- the law brings a long awaited series of benefits and privileges to devoted same-sex couples.
Marriage Equality Act Passes
This hard-fought win for Rhode Island's gay marriage proponents did not happen overnight. In fact, state lawmakers like Rep. Arthur Handy have been trying to get this bill passed for 11 years.
The new law removes any requirement of gender from pre-existing Rhode Island law defining who can legally marry.
Allowances for Religion
Religious authorities in Rhode Island have not remained silent on this issue, and Bishop Thomas Tobin urged legislators to strike down the bill based on practices he finds immoral, reports the Associated Press.
Responding to concerns about freedom of religion in maintaining the traditions of marriage, Rhode Island's gay marriage law makes it clear that each religious institution has "exclusive control" over who can marry within each faith.
This should come as comforting news to concerned parishioners who were worried their church would be forced to marry same-sex couples.
Benefits to Same-Sex Couples
Many couples have already taken advantage of Rhode Island's civil union benefits, and those already in civil unions can apply to have their union turned into a marriage at no extra cost.
Once the law goes into effect in August, same-sex married couples will have the same state benefits as opposite-sex married couples, such as:
The new bill also allows same-sex couples to be married when either partner is at least 16, and removes the prior age requirements for men and women.
Waiting for DOMA Ruling
Despite a victory for same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, any possible federal marriage benefits for these couples will depend on the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
If DOMA is found unconstitutional, Rhode Island gay couples may finally be able to share in federal marriage benefits and have their marriages accepted outside of their state.