Charles Krupa / AP
Rhode Island House Speaker Gordon Fox, right, embraces his partner, Marcus LaFond, after a vote to pass a gay marriage bill at the State House in Providence, R.I., Thursday, May 2, 2013.
Rhode Island became the final state in New England and the 10th in the country to legalize gay marriage after independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee on Thursday signed a bill that will allow same-sex marriage.
"I know that you have been waiting for this day to come," Chafee said to the state's gay and lesbian community at a bill-signing ceremony in front of hundreds. "I know you have loved ones that dreamed this would happen but did not live to see it. But I am proud to say that now at long last, you are free to marry the person you love."
In a New York Times op-ed Wednesday, Chafee outlined his support for gay marriage not only on moral grounds, but also economic.
"The talented workers who are driving the new economy — young, educated and forward-looking — want to live in a place that reflects their values. They want diversity, not simply out of a sense of justice, but because diversity makes life more fun," he wrote. "Why would any state turn away the people who are most likely to create the economies of the 21st century?"
As a Republican U.S. senator in 2004, Chafee voiced his support for gay marriage when most members of his party were staunchly opposed to it. He was ousted from his Senate seat in 2006 but won the governor's race in the Ocean State in 2010 as an independent.
Chafee is now calling on fellow governors to push for similar legislation to what passed in Rhode Island on Thursday, and calling for the Supreme Court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act. Though public opinion continues to turn in favor of same-sex marriage, legalizing it is still a heavy lift for many states.
Even in Rhode Island, which sits in the country's friendliest territory for gay-marriage supporters, opposition from the state's heavy Catholic population put the prospects of passage in jeopardy for years. The legislation has been introduced in the House every session since 1997.
But last fall, more gay-marriage supporters were elected to the state legislature, and the bill's passage was the result of a highly energized and coordinated campaigning from those equal rights groups, business leaders, community organizers and politicians.
The bill overcame its biggest hurdle last week when it passed the Senate by a comfortable 26-12 vote after Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, allowed a vote despite her opposition to gay marriage. The House easily passed the legislation in January but needed to approve the final language in a procedural vote Thursday that passed 56-15. The session was largely a celebration in which legislators reflected on the significance of the bill and thanked those who fought for its passage.
"We are truly social creatures, and that is the essence of this legislation," House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, said before the bill was signed. "You are free to love and commit to the person of your choice no matter what your gender may be.... And the foundation of that is a very simple, yet probably the most powerful word in the English language: Love," said Fox, who is gay.
Along with the five other New England states, Rhode Island joins Iowa, Maryland, Washington, New York and Washington, D.C., in recognizing same-sex marriage. Minnesota, Illinois and Delaware are also expected to come to decisions about the issue soon.
Charles Krupa / AP
Lise Iwon, right, and Julie Smith celebrate after a gay marriage bill passed in the Rhode Island House at the State House in Providence, R.I., Thursday, May 2, 2013.
Opponents to gay marriage argued passing the legislation would lessen religious liberty for churches and certain faith-based organizations
A day before the bill passed, the National Organization for Marriage called on the House to reject the legislation, which they say contains "a shocking lack of religious liberty protections, potentially ghettoizing people of faith unless they compromise and remain silent in the public square."
"When marriage is redefined into a genderless institution, it presents a range of legal conflicts for people of faith and the small businesses and charitable organizations they operate to serve the public," Christopher Plante, regional director for the organization, said in a statement.
The first same-sex marriages could take place Aug. 1, when the new law takes effect. Civil unions, which the state approved two years ago, will no longer be available to gay couples, though existing civil unions will still be recognized.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.