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Rhode Island State Offers Legal Marriage
by Demian
© November 24, 2013, Demian

Legal marriage for same-sex couples became available on August 1, 2013.

Since 2002, Rhode Island State has offered a limited form of domestic partnerships, and, on July 1, 2011, offered civil unions.

As of August 1, 2013, Rhode Island will no longer allow couples to enter into a civil union. Any person who otherwise meets the marriage eligibility requirements of R.I.G.L. Chapters 15-1 and 15-2 may marry any other marriage-eligible person. Full marriage eligibility requirements may be found in R.I.G.L. Chapters 15-1 and 15-2, as amended by Public Law 2013-005.

Marriage Rationale
Article from a Political Leader
Regulation & Links to Official State Instructions
Further Resources

Marriage Rationale

Allowing committed same-sex couples to get married does not change the meaning of marriage. It changes who has access.

Civil marriage for same-sex couples does not affect religious marriages, religious institutions or clergy in any way. No legal marriage law has ever required any religion to be forced to marry same-sex couples, or recognize same-sex marriages within the context of their religious beliefs.

What defines a marriage is love and commitment, and the ability to protect your family. Marriage strengthens all families. It gives couples the tools and the security to build a life together and to protect their family.

Couples marry because they want to be together through sickness and health, when times are good and when things get tough. State and federal marriage laws provide a safety net of legal and economic protections for married couples and their children – including the ability to visit a spouse in the hospital, and to transfer property, which can mean being able to remain in the family home when a spouse has passed away.

While there have been attempts to create marriage-like relationship systems — Domestic Partnership registrations and Civil Unions — they don’t provide the same security and protections on a national level.


From 1998-2001, bills were introduced to make legal marriage available to same-sex couples.

Beginning in 2002, Rhode Island offered domestic partnerships registration, which provided a small number of legal benefits to same-sex couples. For example, if a police officer, fire fighter, or correctional officer, who was the surviving registered spouse, they could receive a “death benefit.” Domestic partners could adjust their state taxes to reflect the costs of health insurance premiums, and could control the funeral arrangements of a deceased partner. This status became inactive with the state’s adoption of civil unions.

In 2004, Senator Rhoda Perry (D-Providence) and Representative Arthur Handy (D-Cranston) presented pro-marriage bills. The Perry bill co-sponsors included four senators. The Handy bill had 11 House co-sponsors. Both the House and Senate judiciary committees held hearings on the marriage bills. Neither took any action. Sen. Perry who said: “No state should commit or condone discrimination, but denying gay couples the right to marry the person they love is exactly that. This is a matter of simple fairness.”

In 2005, Sen. Rhoda Perry (D-Providence) and Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston) again presented pro-marriage bills. The Perry bill co-sponsors include three Democrat and one Republican senator. The Handy bill had 21 sponsors, including one Republican, out of the 75 House members.

In January 2006, a pro-marriage bill was sponsored in the House by Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston), along with 23 co-sponsors.

In February 2007, Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch issued an opinion advising that same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts be recognized in Rhode Island. He said that “his interpretation permitted recognition of the marriages, although he acknowledged that it was just an opinion and did not have the force of law.” The Human Rights Campaign noted that “This is not a binding opinion and the attorney general noted that this question will most likely be answered by the courts.”


In September 2006, Massachusetts Superior Court Justice Thomas E. Connolly ruled that same-sex couples who live in Rhode Island can marry in Massachusetts. The ruling was a response to a 1913 law that prohibited Massachusetts from performing marriages that were not legal in the couple’s home state. The ruling does affect on the status of such marriages in Rhode Island.

In December 2007, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held, in a 3–2 opinion, that the state’s Family Court lacks jurisdiction to hear a divorce petition involving a same-sex couple who were married in Massachusetts.

Civil unions

In May 2011, a bill to legalize civil unions rather than same-sex marriage was introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly. On May 19, 2011, the bill passed the Rhode Island House of Representatives by a vote of 62 to 11, with two Representatives not voting. The Rhode Island Senate then passed bill on a vote of 21–16 on June 29. The governor signed the bill on July 2, 2011, and the bill retroactively took effect as of July 1, 2011. The legislation included extensive and controversial exemptions that allow any religiously affiliated organization or institution, such as schools, universities and hospitals, to deny recognition of spouses in civil union, which made it unpopular with advocates of marriage equality.

Since the legalization of civil unions in Rhode Island, participation has been very low. As of February 2012, only 46 couples had established civil unions. Civil unions are no longer available as of August 1, 2013, when the bill legalizing same-sex marriage took effect, but existing civil unions are still recognized.


In early 2011, legislation to legalize same-sex marriage was introduced. Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent at the time, had previously indicated that he would sign such legislation if it were approved by the state legislature. In April 2011, the legislation stalled due to lack of support in the legislature and contentious debate.

On May 14, 2012, Governor Chafee signed an executive order recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages.

On January 3, 2013, Rep. Arthur Handy and Sen. Donna Nesselbush introduced legislation to legalize same-sex marriage. The House version had 42 of 75 members as sponsors, while the Senate version had 11 of 38. On January 7, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin called the legislation “immoral and unnecessary” and recommended a referendum over enacting same-sex marriage by statute. Gov. Chafee said on January 11 that he would probably veto such a referendum. The Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island, W. Nicholas Knisely, said he was “eager to see our state legislature join many others across the country in passing legislation to ensure civil marriage equality.”

The House Judiciary Committee approved the legislation unanimously on January 22, 2013. The House passed the bill on a 51-19 vote two days later. The Rhode Island Council of Churches endorsed the legislation on January 31. On April 23, all 5 Republican state senators announced their support for the legislation—the first time a party’s caucus in a state legislature has supported same-sex marriage unanimously—and the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the legislation in a 7-4 vote while defeating a proposal to present the issue to voters as a referendum. On April 24, the Rhode Island Senate passed an amended version 26-12. On April 30, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the legislation. The House passed the legislation on May 2, by 56-15, and Chafee signed the legislation the same day. Bishop Tobin reiterated his opposition the same day and wrote a letter to Rhode Island Catholics that said “homosexual acts are … always sinful” and advised that “Catholics should examine their consciences very carefully before deciding whether or not to endorse same-sex relationships or attend same-sex ceremonies. To do so might harm their relationship with God.”

The legislation took effect on August 1, 2013.

Article from a Political Leader

Statement on Marriage Equality Legislation in Rhode Island
The Rt. Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely
Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island
January 19, 2013

As the Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island, I support the bill before the General Assembly that would allow same-sex couples to marry in our state, not in spite of my Christian faith, but because of it.

Episcopalians are not unanimous in our views, but in the Episcopal Church we find our unity in common prayer, not in common opinion. Even so, through many years of prayerful discussion, the majority of Christians in the Episcopal Church have come to believe that it is possible, and even common, for two people of the same-sex to live covenanted, faithful lives together in service to God, just as people in traditional marriages do. We have also learned that it is possible to protect the consciences of those who disagree within our church and still live together in community.

Part of what informs my opinion is that before I became a priest and then a bishop, I was a scientist. So I know the importance of trusting evidence that we see with our own eyes. I have seen what St. Paul describes as the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) in the married lives of two men and of two women. I have seen relationships that are loving, mutual, and monogamous and that have lasted a lifetime. Jesus tells us that we must test each tree by looking at the goodness of its fruit (Luke 6:43-45). Across our congregations and communities, I can see the goodness of gay and lesbian couples and their families.

The Episcopal Church has been blessed for many years by the life and ministry of gay and lesbian couples, both lay and ordained. I have seen how they contribute to the common good of a congregation and a community by creating stable, loving homes. As a new citizen of Rhode Island, I am eager to see our state legislature join many others across the country in passing legislation to ensure civil marriage equality. I believe it is time for the State of Rhode Island to extend marriage equality to all of its citizens. I urge the legislature to pass House Bill 5015.

Regulations & Links to Official State Instructions

Rhode Island Marriage License Regulations

  • Couples marrying in Rhode Island must apply in person for a license at a city or town clerk’s office.
  • The license is valid for 3 months after the issuance date.
  • The ceremony must take place in the presence of the officiant (the person performing the marriage), and two witnesses age 18 or older.
  • Both parties must sign the application in the presence of a city or town clerk, or his or her assistant.
  • Contact the office where you will apply for the license to verify their identification requirements and business hours.
  • If both applicants live in Rhode Island, apply for the license from the city/town clerk of the residence of either applicant. The marriage license is valid in any city or town in Rhode Island and the couple may be married anywhere in Rhode Island.
  • If one applicant lives in Rhode Island, the license should be issued from the city/town of residence.
  • If neither applicant lives in Rhode Island, the marriage license must be obtained at the city or town clerk’s office where the ceremony will take place. The marriage license is valid only in the city or town in which it was issued.
  • A long-form, certified copy of a birth certificate is preferred as proof of birth facts.
  • A passport, or alien card, may be accepted for persons born outside the United States who cannot obtain a birth record.
  • Additional requirements may exist in some locations. For example, some offices require a government-issued picture ID in addition to a certified copy of a birth certificate. Some offices will not accept a passport without a certified copy of a birth certificate.
  • Contact the office where you will apply for the license to verify the requirements.
  • A Permit to Marry (VS 10) must be completed if either applicant is 16 or 17 years of age, or under control of a legal guardian. The permit should be signed and notarized in the presence of the city or town clerk, or any clerk employed in that office. If this is not possible, please contact the Division of Vital Records for instructions.
  • Applicants under 16 cannot get a marriage license in the state of Rhode Island without the approval of Family Court.
  • If either applicant has been previously married, civilly united or in a registered domestic partnership, and the previous marriage, civil union or registered domestic partnership ended in divorce, dissolution or death, that person must present a certified copy of the final decree of divorce or dissolution, or a certified copy of the death certificate to the city or town clerk.
  • Any person who willfully and knowingly supplies false information intending that the information be used in the preparation of a marriage license shall be punished by a fine of not more than $1,000 or imprisoned not more than one year, or both, pursuant to Section 23-3-28 of the RI General Laws.
  • Marriage license fee $24.
If You Are Currently in a Civil Union

Merging your civil union into a legal marriage

  • Apply for a marriage license.
  • The parties to the marriage must be the same parties to the civil union for the civil union to be merged into a marriage.
  • Both persons must complete and sign an “Application To Merge Rhode Island Civil Union Into Marriage” form at the same city, or town hall, where they will be applying for a marriage license.
  • The civil union will be merged into the marriage after the marriage certificate is signed, returned by the officiant to the clerk where the marriage license was issued, and filed by that clerk.
  • All marriage license fees apply.
  • See R.I.G.L. §15-3.1-13 for information about the recognized date of marriage should you exercise this option.
Have your Rhode Island Civil Union legally designated and recorded as a marriage without a marriage ceremony
  • Both parties must return to the town or city hall in which the original civil union license was issued to complete and sign an “Application To Merge Rhode Island Civil Union Into Marriage,” regardless of where either or both persons currently live.
  • No marriage license fees will apply.
  • See R.I.G.L. §15-3.1-13 for information about the recognized date of marriage should you exercise this option.
Maintain your civil union “as is”
  • If you take no action, your Rhode Island Civil Union will remain a legal document in the State of Rhode Island and continue to be subject to the rules and regulations governing a vital record.
  • No marriage license fees apply to this option, and there will be no recognized date of marriage.
What You Should Know If You Merge Your Rhode Island Civil Union Into A Marriage Date of marriage
  • The recognized date of marriage as specified in R.I.G.L. §15-3.1-13 applies only to individuals who previously entered into a civil union in this state and whose civil union has merged into a marriage in this state.
  • The recognized date of marriage is for purposes of determining the legal rights and responsibilities of these persons.
  • The date of the recording (filing date) of the marriage certificate shall be the operative date by which legal rights and responsibilities are determined.
  • The legal rights and responsibilities shall be determined by a court of competent jurisdiction. For more information, confer with your own legal counsel.
Previous legal relationships
  • Any person who, having been previously married or been a party to another relationship that provides substantially the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as a marriage, must prove that the marriage or relationship has ended to the town or city clerk before a license to marry is issued.
  • The town or city clerk must be presented with an authenticated copy (a copy that includes a raised state seal or similar mark) of the decree granting the divorce or an authenticated copy of the final dissolution of the previous relationship.
  • If the other party to that relationship is deceased, the town or city clerk must be presented with a certified copy of the death certificate.
Recognition of out-of-state civil unions or legal relationships by Rhode Island
  • If two persons are within the jurisdiction of Rhode Island and have a legal union other than a marriage that provides substantially the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as a marriage, and the union was validly entered into in another state or jurisdiction, and the union is not prohibited by this chapter then they shall be afforded the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as a valid marriage in this state (RIGL 15-1-8)
Taking action regarding your Rhode Island civil union
  • There is no expiration date on your ability to merge your Rhode Island Civil Union into a marriage. You are free to make this change at a later time.
  • If no action is taken, your Rhode Island Civil Union will remain as is, and in accordance with the rules and regulations governing a vital record.

Links to Official State Marriage License Instructions

Further Resources

Governments that offer Full Legal Marriage

Netherlands (2001)
Belgium (2003)
Canada (2005)
Spain (2005)
South Africa (2005)
Norway (2009)
Sweden (2009)
Iceland (2010)
Argentina (2010)
Portugal (2010)
Denmark (2012)
France (2013)
New Zealand (2013)
Brazil (2013)
Uruguay (2013)
New Zealand (2013)
United Kingdom
(England, Wales, Scotland) (2013)
Luxembourg (2014)
Finland (2014)
Ireland (2015)
United States (2015)
Colombia (2016)
Germany (2017)
Taiwan (2017)
Malta (2017)
Australia (2017)
US States & Territories
U.S. Supreme Court, June 26, 2015 Ruling: All U.S. States must allow same-sex couples legal marriage.

Massachusetts (2004)
California (2008)
Connecticut (2008)
Iowa (2009)
Vermont (2009)
New Hampshire (2009)
District of Columbia (2009)
New York (2011)
Maine (2012)
Washington (2012)
Maryland (2013)
Rhode Island (2013)
Delaware (2013)
Minnesota (2013)
Illinois (2013)
Utah (2013)
New Jersey (2013)

Hawaii (2013)
New Mexico (2013)
Michigan (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
Oregon (2014)
Wisconsin (2014) Arkansas (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
Pennsylvania (2014)
Indiana (2014)
Nevada (2014)
Virginia (2014)
Oklahoma (2014)
Idaho (2014)
West Virginia (2014)
Alaska (2014)
Arizona (2014)
Wyoming (2014)
Kansas (2014) - stayed pending legal challenge
Florida (2014)
Colorado (2014)
North Carolina (2014)
South Carolina (2014)
Montana (2014)
Alabama (2015)
Native American Tribes

Coquille Tribe, Oregon (2009)
Mashantucket Pequot, Connecticut (2011)
Suquamish Tribe, Washington (2011)
Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Washington (2013)
Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Minnesota (2013)
Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Michigan (2013)
Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, Michigan (2013)
Santa Ysabel Tribe, California (2013)
Confederated Tribes of the Colville Nation, Washington (2013)
Cheyenne, Oklahoma (2013)
Arapaho, Oklahoma (2013)
Leech Lake Tribal Court, Minnesota (2013)
Puyallup Tribe, Washington (2914)
Wind River Indian Reservation, Wyoming (2014)
Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Michigan (2014)
Colville Confederated Tribes, Washington (2014)
Central Council of Tlingit, Alaska (2015)
Haida Indian Tribes, Alaska (2015)

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