PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Legislation that would make Rhode Island the 10th state to allow gays and lesbians to marry faces an uncertain future despite being overwhelmingly approved by the state House.
It could be weeks or even months before the Senate takes up the bill that would make Rhode Island the last state in New England to recognize same-sex marriage, but supporters still celebrated the House vote Thursday night.
Ken Fish, a gay man from Warwick, showed up at the Statehouse hours before the vote to ensure he got a seat in the crowded viewing gallery.
"I wanted to be here to see it," said Fish, 70, "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."
While the House has a gay marriage champion in Speaker Gordon Fox, who is gay, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed opposes the legislation.
The 51-19 House vote came after an often emotional debate that touched on civil rights, religion and the nature of marriage.
"This has been a long journey," Fox said after the vote. Fox 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."
Nine states and the District of Columbia now allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who supports gay marriage, urged quick action on the bill in the Senate. The governor, an independent, argues gay marriage is an issue of civil rights and the state's quality of life, and said some people may choose other New England states over Rhode Island because of its stance on marriage.
"Now that the House has swiftly acted, I urge Senate leadership to 'call the roll' — for our economy, for our gay and lesbian friends and neighbors, and for history," he said in a statement.
Advocacy groups on both sides of the issue will now turn their attention to the 38-member Senate, which has never voted on gay marriage legislation.
Chris Plante, director of the state chapter of the National Institute for Marriage, said he's optimistic senators will vote to preserve the state's current marriage laws. He said leaders like Fox and Chafee don't reflect 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 Chafee.
A handful of lawmakers rose during Thursday's 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."
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.