By DAVID KLEPPER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — State lawmakers in Rhode Island could decide whether the nation's smallest state becomes the 10th to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.
Following months of review and debate, the state Senate is set to vote on gay marriage legislation Wednesday afternoon. The bill easily passed the House in January and has the support of independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee.
Gay marriage legislation has been introduced in Rhode Island's General Assembly for nearly two decades only to languish on the legislative agenda. Heavily Catholic Rhode Island is now the only state in New England that does not allow same-sex couples to marry. Gay marriage is law in nine states and the District of Columbia.
Wednesday's 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."
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.
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.
Opponents aren't giving up on efforts to turn back the legislation. Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, said he planned to fast and pray ahead of Wednesday's debate.
"Culture may change, but God has an immutable character," he said. "I'll be praying all night."
Chafee encouraged supporters to contact their senators ahead of the vote but 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 gay 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.