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Rhode Island moves closer to approving same-sex marriage

Rhode Island moved one step closer to approving same-sex marriage on Tuesday when the House Judiciary Committee unanimously agreed to send a marriage equality bill to the full House. 

The bill revises current marriage law – including language that prohibits a man from marrying his mother, grandmother, stepmother and so on. The bill renders those relations gender-neutral: “No person shall marry his or her sibling, parent, grandparent, child…"

U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, an openly-gay Democrat, applauded his home state on Tuesday. On his official website and on his Facebook page, he issued a statement: “This important effort has received the support of a growing number of Rhode Islanders from nearly every political background and religious tradition, and I believe it is time our state recognizes the dignity and value of relationships between committed and loving individuals of the same gender by enacting full marriage equality in Rhode Island.”

If passed by House and Senate, gay couples could start getting married immediately. Couples with civil unions licensed by the state would have their unions transferred to marriages on Jan. 1, 2014. The Providence Journal reported that supporters expect the measure to pass the state House, but that the state Senate is less certain. 

Separately, the U.S. Supreme Court received its first brief on same-sex marriage on Tuesday. The brief, which came from supporters of a 2008 California ban on same-sex marriage, urged the justices to let voters define marriage.

A separate filing from  the top three Republican members of the House of Representatives -- Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy -- urged the court to uphold Section 3 of a 1996 federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, that has the effect of denying same-sex couples a variety of federal benefits that heterosexual couples receive.

The Supreme Court could rule that it would be unconstitutional for any states to prohibit same-sex marriage -- arguing that marriage is a fundamental right and that equal protection under the Constitution means marriage equality. 

If a high court ruling does not support same-sex marriage, that would not prevent the Rhode Island legislature from passing a law allowing gay couples to marry in the state.

For now, nine states and Washington, D.C. allow same-sex marriage. Voters in Washington, Maryland and Maine approved same-sex marriage during the November election. Minnesota voters refused an amendment that would have written man-woman marriage into the state constitution. 

Reuters contributed reporting.

Editor's note: An updated version of this story corrects when gay couples could marry in Rhode Island should the bill pass.