PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island senators put the state on the path Wednesday to becoming the 10th state to allow same-sex couples to marry.
The gay marriage legislation easily passed the Rhode Island House in January, and the Senate vote was seen as the true test. The bill passed 26-12, and now returns to the House for a largely procedural vote, likely next week, before going to Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who supports the legislation.
"This is a historic piece of legislation, one that literally has been in the works for more than 20 years," said Sen. Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, the bill's main sponsor in the Senate. "This is something that undoes centuries of discrimination against gay and lesbian couples."
While the other five New England states already allow gay marriage, heavily Catholic Rhode Island has been a hold-out. Supporters this year mounted an aggressive and coordinated campaign that included organized labor, religious leaders, business owners and leaders including Chafee and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.
The bill's chances improved when Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed said she would allow the bill to move forward, despite her opposition to gay marriage. Earlier this week, the Senate's five Republicans announced they would all support the measure.
The first gay marriages in Rhode Island could take place Aug. 1, when the legislation would take effect. Civil unions would no longer be available to same-sex couples as of that date, though the state would continue to recognize existing civil unions. Lawmakers approved civil unions two years ago, though few couples have sought them.
Gay marriage legislation has been introduced in Rhode Island's General Assembly for nearly two decades only to languish on the legislative agenda without a vote. Last fall, House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is gay, vowed to hold a vote early in the session, a move that focused the attention of supporters on the Senate.
Supporters framed the issue as one of civil rights, arguing in daylong legislative hearings that gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights and protections given to opposite-sex married couples. The Catholic Church was the most significant opponent, with Bishop Thomas Tobin urging lawmakers to defeat what he called an "immoral and unnecessary" change to traditional marriage law.
The Rhode Island legislation states that religious institutions may set their own rules regarding who is eligible to marry within the faith and specifies that no religious leader is obligated to officiate at any marriage ceremony and no religious group is required to provide facilities or services related to a gay marriage.
While ministers already cannot be forced to marry anyone, the exemption helped assuage concerns from some lawmakers that clergy could face lawsuits for abiding by their religious convictions.
Delaware could be the next state to approve gay marriage. Legislation legalizing same-sex marriage narrowly passed the Delaware House on Tuesday and now heads to that state's Senate for consideration.