PROVIDENCE -- Rhode Island senators put the state on the path yesterday to becoming the 10th state to allow same-sex couples to marry.

The gay marriage legislation easily passed the state House in January, and the Senate vote was seen as the true test. The bill passed 26-12 and returns to the House for a largely procedural vote, likely next week, before going to Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who supports the legislation.

"This is a historic piece of legislation, one that literally has been in the works for more than 20 years," said state Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket), the bill's main sponsor in the Senate. "This is something that undoes centuries of discrimination against gay and lesbian couples."

While the other five New England states already allow gay marriage, heavily Catholic Rhode Island has been a holdout. Supporters this year mounted an aggressive and coordinated campaign that included organized labor, religious leaders, business owners and leaders including Chafee and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.

The bill's chances improved when Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed said she would allow it to move forward, despite her opposition to gay marriage. Earlier this week, the Senate's five Republicans announced they would all support the measure.

The first gay marriages in Rhode Island could take place Aug. 1, when the legislation is to take effect. Civil unions would no longer be available to same-sex couples as of that date, but the state would continue to recognize existing civil unions. Lawmakers approved civil unions two years ago, though few couples have sought them.

In Delaware could be the next state to approve gay marriage. Gay marriage legislation narrowly passed the State House on Tuesday and now heads to that state's Senate.-- AP

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