PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- The Rhode Island House is poised to debate and vote on legislation that would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry - the first time the issue has gone to a legislative vote in the only New England state without same-sex marriage.
Supporters and opponents of the legislation expect it to easily pass the House on Thursday, led by House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is gay. Both sides say the true test of the legislation lies 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 the issue has received a vote in either the House or Senate.
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 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.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, supports the bill and said he hopes to sign it into law this year. 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.