By DAVID KLEPPER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island's long-simmering debate on gay marriage heads to a pivotal vote when a legislative committee decides whether to forward the legislation to the full Senate for a final vote.
The entire Senate could take up the bill by week's end if the Senate Judiciary Committee votes in favor of the measure Tuesday. The House passed the bill in January.
Supporters said they are cautiously optimistic that momentum is on their side.
"We're not there yet, but I do believe a majority of senators support granting civil rights to gay people," said Sen. Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket. Nesselbush is gay and the lead sponsor of the legislation in the Senate.
The Senate has long been seen as the true test for gay marriage in Rhode Island, now the only state in New England without gay marriage. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed opposes the bill but has vowed not to obstruct debate. The Newport Democrat could exercise her power as the Senate's leader by casting a vote in Tuesday's committee meeting, but she told The Associated Press she would not do so.
The committee also is reviewing legislation that would put the question of gay marriage to the voters in next year's election. The committee could vote to forward one – or both – bills.
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 Monday urging the Senate to "stand strong in resisting this immoral and unnecessary proposition.
"It is only with grave risk to our spiritual well-being and the common good of our society that we dare to redefine what God himself has created," Tobin said.
Nine states and the District of Columbia now allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. Efforts to add Rhode Island to the list collapsed two years ago when it became apparent the legislation wouldn't pass the Senate. This year, advocates mounted a coordinated political campaign that made use of phone banks, endorsements from politicians, business leaders and clergy – and hundreds of volunteers.
"We are thrilled to be on the cusp of this critical vote, and do believe we have a path to victory," said Ray Sullivan, campaign director of Rhode Islanders United for Marriage.