The Rhode Island Senate is poised to hold a landmark vote Wednesday on same-sex marriage legislation, the culmination of years of efforts by supporters who want to see the state join the rest of New England in allowing gays and lesbians to wed.
Advocates are optimistic the bill will pass when the Senate takes it up Wednesday afternoon. The bill has already been endorsed by the House and has the support of Gov. Lincoln Chafee.
The vote comes after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-4 Tuesday to forward the legislation to the Senate floor. Dozens of supporters cheered and cried following the vote. Ken Fish, a 70-year-old gay man from Warwick, said he watched the committee vote with a mixture of disbelief and elation.
"It's almost unreal to think we're here, after all these years," he said. "I wasn't sure we'd ever get here."
Support for the bill has grown since it passed the House in January. On Tuesday, the Senate's five Republicans announced they would all support the legislation, further improving the bill's chances.
"We've got one more step, but I expect it to pass with overwhelming support," said Sen. Dawson Hodgson, R-North Kingstown.
Nine states and the District of Columbia now allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. While its neighbors moved to allow same-sex marriage, heavily Catholic Rhode Island emerged as a hold-out. Gay marriage legislation has been introduced here for nearly 20 years, only to languish on the legislative agenda.
Opponents aren't giving up on efforts to turn back the legislation. Bishop Thomas Tobin, leader of Providence's Roman Catholic Diocese, released a statement this week urging the Senate to "stand strong in resisting this immoral and unnecessary proposition."
Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, cast one of the four "no" votes Tuesday and said he was "very disappointed" by the outcome. He said after the vote that he would seek divine help before Wednesday's floor debate.
"Culture may change, but God has an immutable character," he said. "I'll be praying all night."
Chafee, an independent, encouraged supporters to remain just as engaged, asking them to contact their senators ahead of Wednesday's vote. But he signaled that he thinks the bill will pass, saying in a statement that "I believe that when the roll is called, marriage equality will become law in Rhode Island."
The Senate has long been seen as the true test for same-sex marriage in Rhode Island. Two years ago, gay marriage legislation languished after it became apparent it would be defeated in the Senate. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, opposes the bill but has vowed not to obstruct debate.
The Rhode Island legislation states that religious institutions may set their own rules for who is eligible to marry within their faith and specifies that no religious leader is obligated to officiate at any marriage ceremony. While ministers already cannot be forced to marry anyone, the exemption helped assuage concerns from some lawmakers that clergy could face lawsuits for abiding by their religious convictions.
If the bill passes the Senate it must return to the House for a largely procedural vote on small changes made to the bill on the Senate side. House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, said a final vote could come as early as next week.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also defeated legislation that would have placed gay marriage on the ballot as a voter referendum. Supporters including Chafee and House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is gay, had opposed the idea of placing what they say is a civil rights issue to a public vote.
The presence of Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, who only participates in committee votes at his discretion, seemed to have ensured that passage. But the measure failed 6-5.
"This was a surprise for us. There were several members of the committee who we thought were willing to open the door to let the voters have a say on the issue. So we were surprised to see that it went down the way it did," said Scott Spear of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Marriage.
U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., said, "This is a proud and historic day for our state."
NBC 10 News contributed to this report.