The Rhode Island House of Representatives voted 51-19 to approve gay marriage. The bill now goes to the Senate.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The Rhode Island House of Representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly passed legislation to allow gays and lesbians to marry in the only New England state where they can't.
The House voted 51-19 after an often emotional debate that touched on civil rights, religion and the nature of marriage. The bill now moves to the Senate, where both supporters and opponents of gay marriage say it is difficult to predict the bill's fate.
"This has been a long journey," said House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is gay and supported same-sex legislation when it was first introduced in 1997. "Today is a great day. Today ... we stand for equality, we stand for justice."
Thursday's vote posed the most significant challenge yet for gay marriage in Rhode Island. While the five other New England states already allow gay couples to marry, attempts have fallen flat in this heavily Catholic state.
"I wanted to be here to see it," said 70-year-old Warwick resident Ken Fish, who is gay. Fish showed up at the Statehouse hours early to ensure he had a seat in the crowded viewing gallery. "Go back 10 years, even five years, and I wasn't sure we'd ever get here. We're not done yet, but this is a big one."
The bill had 42 sponsors in the 75-member House. The bill's longtime sponsor, Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston, said he's seen a widespread change of opinion on gay marriage, even among some previously staunch opponents in the legislature.
"It's a harder 'no' vote than people may have thought," he said.
It could be weeks or months before the bill receives a vote in the Senate. Paiva Weed, a Newport Democrat, said last week she couldn't support the legislation as written. But she has said she will allow the Senate Judiciary Committee to review and vote on the bill if it passes the House.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, supports the bill and said he hopes to sign it into law this year. Last year he signed an executive order requiring the state to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Two years ago, Fox dropped gay marriage legislation after he concluded the bill would not pass the Senate. Instead, lawmakers passed civil unions for same-sex couples. There has been little interest: In the year since civil unions were first offered, only 68 couples obtained civil union licenses.
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