di Erik Eckholm
Rhode Island took a step on Tuesday toward becoming the 10th state to approve same-sex marriage when a major legislative committee forwarded a marriage bill to the State Senate.
By a vote of 7 to 4, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, while allowing religious leaders who oppose such marriages to refuse to perform them. The landmark vote by the full Senate could come on Wednesday. Gay rights advocates said that they think they have the votes to prevail, all but ensuring adoption of same-sex marriage by the only state in New England that does not already allow it.
“We think that when the vote is called, we can win,” Ray Sullivan, campaign director of Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, said Tuesday afternoon of the imminent Senate vote.
A similar bill passed the House in January by a vote of 51 to 19, and Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a onetime Republican who is now an independent, has strongly supported “marriage equality.”
Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, which has lobbied against expanding marriage rights in Rhode Island and other states, said that “this bill can still be stopped.”
But his cause suffered setbacks in Rhode Island on Tuesday. The Judiciary Committee failed to support a counterproposal to let the public decide the marriage issue in a referendum, and all five Republican members of the 38-member State Senate declared support for same-sex marriage.
Those five Republicans were guilty of “a massive mistake and betrayal,” Mr. Brown said.
Still, gay rights advocates were not taking anything for granted on Tuesday afternoon, and vowed to spend the evening making hundreds more calls and home visits, urging voters to contact senators who might be undecided.
Opposition to same-sex marriage in the state has been led by the Roman Catholic Church. In a statement on Monday, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of the Diocese of Providence warned legislators of a “grave risk” to society and urged them “to stand strong” and “defend marriage and family as traditionally defined.”
In addition to Rhode Island, bills to permit same-sex marriage are under active consideration in the legislatures of at least three other states: Delaware, Illinois and Minnesota.
The latest action took place on Tuesday in Delaware, where the House approved a bill authorizing same-sex marriage by a vote of 23 to 18. It now goes before the State Senate.
“We’re extremely hopeful that all four of those states will move to marriage equality this year,” said Sarah Warbelow, director of state legislation for the Human Rights Campaign, a private group in Washington.
Last November, same-sex marriage won in state referendums in Maine, Maryland and Washington. In six other states and the District of Columbia, it has been approved by legislatures or required by court decisions.
But 30 states have adopted constitutional provisions limiting marriage to a man and a woman.
Mr. Brown, of the National Organization for Marriage, said that his side could win in plebiscites in most states and that “talk of the demise of traditional marriage is premature.”
“It’s a lot tougher to win in legislatures,” he said. “A sophisticated lobbying apparatus with tons of money has been created to go into state after state and convince legislators to vote against what their constituents want.”
Gay rights advocates note, in response, that public acceptance of same-sex marriage is climbing rapidly, with a majority now endorsing it in national polls and the support especially strong among those under 50.