PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island senators put their state on the path today to becoming the 10th state to allow same-sex couples to marry, passing legislation by a comfortable 26-12 margin after nearly two decades of attempts to legalize gay marriage.
The bill passed the House in January and now returns there for a largely procedural vote, likely next week, before going to Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who supports the legislation.
Hundreds of gay marriage supporters erupted into cheers and applause — and many cried — outside the Senate chamber following the vote.
"I think it's actually going to happen," said Michael Sherman, 45, a gay man from Providence who came to the Statehouse for the historic vote. "When you tell someone they can't do something because they're different from you, people see that as just wrong. It shouldn't have taken this long."
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 20 years 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.
Fox's chamber will now get the final say on the legislation, when the House is expected to sign off on minor changes the Senate made to the bill. A hearing on the bill is expected Tuesday, ahead of the House vote next Thursday.
"After all these years, all these setbacks, all the hearings, we kept at it and we got closer and closer each year," said Rep. Frank Ferri, D-Warwick, a gay man who lobbied for marriage legislation before he ran for office and is now one of the top supporters of the legislation. "I'm pumped. I'm excited. I'm thrilled. It's almost surreal."
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.
Before today's vote some supporters held up signs reading "Rhode Island No. 10." Annie Silvia, 61, of North Attleboro, Mass., just across the state line, said she and her partner of 30 years may retire to her home state of Rhode Island now.
"I grew up in Rhode Island and I'd like to retire in Rhode Island," she said. "No. 10 is a nice round number, but I'd like it to be bigger. Fifty sounds good to me."