Thursday April 25, 2013

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Rhode Island is on a path to becoming the 10th state to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry after a landmark vote in the state’s Senate on Wednesday.

The Senate passed gay marriage legislation by a comfortable 26-12 margin, following a House vote of approval in January. The bill must now return to the House for a largely procedural vote, likely next week, but the celebration began Wednesday.

Hundreds of people filled the Statehouse with cheers following the vote.

"I grew up in Rhode Island and I’d like to retire in Rhode Island," said Annie Silvia, 61, who now lives with her partner of 30 years just across the border in North Attleboro, Mass. "No. 10 is a nice round number, but I’d like it to be bigger. Fifty sounds good to me."

Heavily Catholic Rhode Island is the last remaining New England state without gay marriage.

Supporters mounted a renewed push this year, and the Senate vote was seen as the critical test after the House easily passed the bill.

The first gay marriages in Rhode Island could take place Aug. 1, when the legislation would take effect. Civil unions would no longer be available to same-sex couples as of that date, though the state would continue to recognize existing civil unions.

Hundreds of opponents also gathered at the Statehouse for the vote, singing hymns and holding signs as the Senate deliberated. Rev. David Rodriguez, a Providence minister, said he was disappointed by the vote.

"Marriage between a man and a woman is what God wanted," he said. "We will continue to do what we know how to do: Keep praying and preaching."

The Roman Catholic Church was the bill’s most significant opponent. During the Senate’s emotional debate several senators said they struggled mightily, weighing their personal religious beliefs against stories they heard from gay constituents or their families.

Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence, said she lost sleep over her vote but decided, despite opposition from the Catholic Church, to vote "on the side of love."

Delaware could be the next state to approve gay marriage. Legislation legalizing same-sex marriage narrowly passed the Delaware House on Tuesday and now heads to that state’s Senate for consideration.