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."
Nine states and the District of Columbia now allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.
Gay marriage opponents vow to press their case in the Senate, where Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, remains opposed to the legislation. Chris Plante, director of the state chapter of the National Institute for Marriage, said he believes state leaders who support gay marriage aren't reflecting public sentiment.
"Rhode Islanders care about marriage, and they don't want to see it redefined," he said.
Some opponents have suggested placing gay marriage on the ballot as a referendum, but the idea is a nonstarter with Fox and independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a gay marriage supporter
A handful of lawmakers rose during the debate to criticize gay marriage as a dangerous social experiment. Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence, warned lawmakers that same-sex marriage was an "irrevocable societal game-changer" that would redefine "the fundamental building block of our community" and could lead to the legalization of polygamy or plural marriages.
"Truth must not be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness," he said. "Is this the vision you want for Rhode Island's future? Is this the future you want for America?"
Supporters in Rhode Island are hoping to build on national momentum after votes to approve gay marriage in Maine, Maryland and Washington. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, voters rejected a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have prohibited gay marriage, the first time such a ballot question has failed in the United States.
Lawmakers who argued in favor of allowing gays to marry warned their colleagues they could wind up on the wrong side of history if they cast a no vote.
"Your grandchildren someday will ask you... `How did you vote on marriage equality?"' said Rep. John Edwards, D-Tiverton. "Hopefully you'll be able to say the right thing."
Passage in the House was expected, as 42 of the 75 House members signed on as sponsors.
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. But there has been little interest in the state. In the year since civil unions were first offered, only 68 couples obtained civil union licenses.
Last year, Chafee signed an executive order recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states.