PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Gay marriage faces its biggest test yet in Rhode Island as the state's House of Representatives prepares to vote on legislation Thursday that would allow gay and lesbian 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, led by House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is gay. 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 bill has 42 sponsors in the 75-member House — an indication of just how easily it could pass. The bill's longtime sponsor, Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston, said he's seen a widespread change of opinion on gay marriage and that even some previously staunch opponents in the legislature may give the bill a second thought when the roll is called.
"It's a harder 'no' vote than people may have thought," he said.
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 to the voters in the form of 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 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. There has been little interest: in the year since civil unions were first offered, only 68 couples obtained civil union licenses.