Steven Senne / AP
Rhode Island State Rep. Frank Ferri, center left, and his partner Tony Caparco, far left, greet Wendy Baker, center right, and her partner Judy McDonnell, third from right, at the Statehouse in Providence, R.I. on Thursday.
Lawmakers in Rhode Island's House on Thursday easily passed a bill to allow gay marriage, putting the state one step closer to joining the rest of New England in legal recognition of same-sex couples.
But observers on both sides of the issue said that the ultimate fate of the legislation was hard to call.
The bill passed the House 51-19, but it faces a much more difficult battle in the state Senate, supporters and opponents said.
Moments after the House vote, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a firm supporter of the measure, tweeted: "Certain votes can be characterized as 'historic.' RI House's overwhelming passage of marriage equality is one such vote."
Opponents were quick to weigh in as well.
The House vote "undermines the common good of our state and strikes against the very foundation of our culture," said a statement from the Rhode Island Catholic Conference. "Unfortunately, this bill redefines marriage and fails to protect the religious liberties of many faith communities and individuals of conscience who believe that marriage is a union of one man and one woman."
"There is incredible momentum behind this movement," said Ray Sullivan, the campaign manager for Rhode Islanders United for Marrriage, a coalition of groups that had pushed for passage. There was "first a unanimous Judiciary Committee vote, and now two-thirds of members, Republicans and Democrats, stood in support of marriage equality."
The vote came after nearly two hours of discussion among state representatives.
The focus will now turn to the state Senate, which must hear its version of the bill by April 11.
That battle is expected to be much closer.
"We're not taking anything for granted," said Sullivan. "Tonight we will celebrate and tomorrow we will double and triple our efforts."
In lobbying a state senators who are on the fence or opposed to same-sex marriage, Sullivan said his group will continue to emphasize the human side of the issue, bringing the testimony of same-sex couples who have been together for decades to legislators, an approach he believes was the key to persuading undecided members of the House.
Same sex couples have the legal right to marry in nine states plus Washington, D.C. They include Rhode Island's neighbors in the northeast — Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, Vermont, Maine, New York and New Hampshire — as well as Iowa and Washington state.