PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — 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.