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May 2, 2013 7:06 PM

Rhode Island legislature OKs gay marriage bill; gov. to sign

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Rhode Island is joining nine other states and the District of Columbia in allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry after the state's General Assembly gave it a final procedural vote on Thursday.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee planned to sign the legislation into law Thursday evening. Hundreds are expected to gather at the Statehouse to celebrate the new law, which already passed the House and Senate once. The first weddings could take place Aug. 1, when the new law would take effect.

The other five New England states already have gay marriage, but bills that would have changed marriage laws in heavily Catholic Rhode Island sputtered for nearly 20 years until this year. More gay marriage supporters were elected to the legislature last fall, and advocates mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign to pressure undecided lawmakers.

The House passed the bill in January at the behest of House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, who is gay. The Senate was seen as the bigger challenge, but the bill passed easily last week after Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, said she would allow a vote despite her opposition to gay marriage. The House gave final approval Thursday with a 56-15 vote.

Thursday was an especially sweet day for the many gay and lesbian Rhode Islanders who have worked for years to pass gay marriage in the nation's smallest state.

Jenn Steinfeld, one of the co-founders of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, began her relationship with her partner 13 years ago after the two, then acquaintances, saw each other at one of the many legislative hearings on gay marriage. Steinfeld has watched the movement grow from a few people into thousands of volunteers, many of whom are not gay or lesbian.

"When we started, I knew every single person in our database," she said. "Now I go to events and I don't know anybody. I think that's wonderful. Seeing the tide change, seeing people who aren't personally affected support us, it's just been amazing."

Once the new law takes effect, civil unions in Rhode Island would no longer be available to same-sex couples, though the state would continue to recognize existing civil unions. Lawmakers approved civil unions two years ago, though few couples have sought them.

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