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Rhode Island poised to become latest state to approve gay marriage

Steven Senne / AP

Rhode Island state Sen. Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket (center) shakes hands with R.I. state Sen. Paul Fogarty, D-Glocester, moments after the state Senate passed a same-sex marriage bill Wednesday.

Rhode Island took a major step to becoming the 10th state to approve gay marriage Wednesday after the state Senate voted to approve a measure that would allow same-sex couples to wed.

Once believed to be a close call, the legislation passed comfortably by a 26-12 vote. It heads to the House, where it easily passed in January, next week for final approval. Gov. Lincoln Chafee has pledged to sign the bill, and the first same-sex marriages could take place Aug. 1.

Heavily Catholic Rhode Island is the last of New England's six states to legalize gay marriage. The legislation has been introduced in the House every year since 1997.

"Rhode Island will no longer be an outlier in our region. We will have the welcome mat out," Chafee said in a statement. "We will be open for business, and we will once again affirm our legacy as a place that is tolerant and appreciative of diversity."

Iowa, Maryland, New York and Washington also legally recognize same-sex marriages, as does Washington, D.C.

Supporters of same sex-marriage erupted into cheers outside the Senate chambers after the result was clear. The vote was a result of a highly energized and coordinated campaigning from those equal rights groups, business leaders, community organizers and politicians. 

“New England is now complete. Through court rulings, legislative action, and wins at the ballot, loving and committed couples from Bangor to Burlington, Providence to Portland, and Cambridge to Concord will soon be able to join in the freedom to marry," Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, said in a statement.

Since President Obama announced his support of gay marriage in May 2012, state legislatures throughout the country have slowly begun to follow his lead. Minnesota, Illinois and Delaware are also expected to come to decisions about the issue soon.

Opponents to gay marriage argued passing the legislation will create less religious liberty for churches and certain faith-based organizations. “Lawmakers have allowed themselves to be fooled into thinking they have protected people of faith when in fact they have put those who believe in true marriage in the crosshairs of the law and gay ‘marriage’ activists. It won’t be long before the repercussions begin to be felt,” Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said in a statement.

NBC's Miranda Leitsinger contributed to this report.