PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Gay marriage faced its biggest test yet in Rhode Island as the state's House of Representatives debated legislation Thursday that would allow gay couples to marry in the only New England state where they can't.
Supporters and opponents of the bill expect it to easily pass the House Thursday night. Both sides say the true test of the legislation lies ahead in the Senate, where Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed opposes the legislation.
Gay marriage legislation has been introduced every year in the General Assembly since 1997, but Thursday's vote will mark the first time it has been debated and gone to a vote on the House or Senate floor.
The debate was personal to Ken Fish, who showed up at the Statehouse early to get a seat in the viewing gallery. The 70-year-old Warwick resident says he and his partner of 25 years have long waited for Rhode Island to pass gay marriage. He called Thursday's legislative action "history in the making."
"I wanted to be here to see it," he told The Associated Press. "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."
Lawmakers who support gay marriage cited the civil rights era, the legal rights of marriage and Rhode Island's legacy of religious tolerance. Rep. John Edwards, D-Tiverton, cautioned his colleagues that history will remember how they vote.
"Your grandchildren someday will ask you... how did you vote on marriage equality?" he said. "Hopefully you'll be able to say the right thing."
Opponents also believed history was their side, saying gay marriage would erode an institution that has been a foundation to human society.
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 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?"
The bill has 42 sponsors in the 75-member House — an indication of just how easily it could pass. House Speaker Gordon Fox said before the debate that he felt optimistic. He was a supporter of the 1997 gay marriage bill — one of many that never made it to a vote.
"Sometimes democracy is not pretty and it works slowly," said the Providence Democrat, who is gay. "But there's an old adage: Good things come to those who wait."
Supporters are hoping to build on national momentum following the votes 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.
Opponents are hoping this heavily Catholic state maintains its current marriage laws.
"Rhode Islanders care about marriage and they don't want to see it redefined," said Christopher Plante, director of the state chapter of the National Institute for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage.
Should the bill pass the House, it could be weeks or even months before it 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.
Opponents of gay marriage have suggested putting the question before voters in a referendum. Sen. Frank Ciccone, D-Providence, has introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would define marriage as being between a man and a woman. That idea, which has been referred to a Senate committee for review, would require voter approval. It's unlikely that the House, with so many gay marriage supporters, would vote to put it on the ballot.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, supports gay marriage and has said he would oppose efforts to put what he calls a civil rights issue to a popular vote. 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. 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.