By DAVID KLEPPER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island appears poised to become the nation's 10th state to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry after a legislative panel voted Tuesday to forward same-sex marriage legislation to the full House for a final – and largely procedural – vote.
The outcome of Thursday's House vote is not in doubt, as the House overwhelmingly passed an earlier version of the bill in January. The Senate passed the bill by a comfortable margin last week, but it had to return to the House because of small changes made in the Senate.
"We're one step closer," said Sen. Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket and the bill's sponsor in the Senate. "Every step is important and every step is exciting."
Gov. Lincoln Chafee is expected to sign the bill into law quickly after it passes the House.
Nine states and the District of Columbia now allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. Heavily Catholic Rhode Island is currently the only New England state that doesn't allow gay marriage, although bills legalizing it have been introduced every year since 1997.
There was little testimony at Tuesday's brief hearing on the legislation_ a big departure from the hours-long hearings earlier this year and in previous years that attracted hundreds of people on both sides of the debate. With the bill all but passed, most opponents stayed away.
Testimony focused on the changes made to the bill by the Senate. The bill that passed the House stated that religious institutions may set their own rules regarding who is eligible to marry within the faith and specifies that no religious leader is obligated to officiate at any marriage ceremony. The Senate added language to ensure that groups like the Knights of Columbus aren't legally obligated to provide facilities for same-sex weddings.
Supporters said they could live with the changes.
"I ask you now for what I hope will be the final time: please pass these bills," said Kate Montiero, a member of Rhode Islanders United for Marriage and a longtime leader of the state's gay and lesbian rights movement. "Please finally bring marriage equality to Rhode Island. It is in the end what it has always been, just plain fair."
Only three people spoke out against the bill at the hearing, saying gay marriage should be illegal and would lead to a moral decline in the state.
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. Lawmakers approved civil unions two years ago, though few couples have sought them.