Rhode Island state Sen. Donna Nesselbush reacts seconds after the state… (Steven Senne / Associated…)
Rhode Island took a step Wednesday toward becoming the 10th state to recognize gay marriage after the Senate passed a bill that could clear the way for same-sex weddings to begin this summer.
The bill passed 26 to 12 after about 90 minutes of debate and is due to take effect Aug. 1, assuming nothing blocks what is seen as a routine vote in the House and the signature of Gov. Lincoln Chafee.
Chafee, an independent, supports the legislation, and the House easily passed the bill in January. It must vote on it again because of amendments made before the Senate vote, and its approval is seen as virtually guaranteed.
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After Wednesday's vote, Chafee issued a statement saying he was "always proud to be a Rhode Islander, but never more so than today."
On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7 to 4 to advance the bill to the full Senate, where all five Republican members had vowed to support it. The committee also voted 6 to 5 against letting voters decide on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
But it has been a long and difficult battle for the legislation, which Sen. Donna Nesselbush said had been in the works for more than 20 years. Nesselbush, a Democrat who is openly gay, was the bill's sponsor and called its passage a "historic moment" that would undo decades of discrimination.
She said the bill protects religious leaders who oppose same-sex marriage by including a provision that permits them to opt out of performing gay weddings.
"The eyes of the nation are upon us," Nesselbush said as lawmakers prepared to vote.
As promised, the five Senate Republicans joined 21 Democrats in supporting the bill. The 12 "no" votes came from 11 Democrats and one independent. Democrats opposed included the Senate president, Teresa Paiva-Weed, who allowed debate on the bill to go forward despite her objection to same-sex marriage.
"I give her a lot of credit," Nesselbush told the Providence Journal earlier this week. I've heard stories about leaders derailing bills or killing bills, and that's not happening, and that says something about her."
Assuming the bill is signed into law, Rhode Island would join New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, Vermont, Washington and Iowa in recognizing same-sex marriage. Washington, D.C., also allows same-sex marriage.
The action by the Rhode Island lawmakers came two days after legislators in Nevada moved to end a ban on same-sex marriage there. During the often emotional debate, a state senator stunned fellow lawmakers by announcing that he is gay.
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