The Rhode Island Senate passed a bill on Wednesday that allows civil unions for same-sex couples in the state.
The measure was approved 21-16, adding momentum to the gay rights movement which just celebrated the landmark approval of gay marriage in New York last week.
Rhode Island's bill, sponsored by Rep. Peter J. Petrarca (D), is modeled after laws in Illinois, Delaware and Hawaii and would grant same-sex couples the same rights afforded to married couples.
Earlier this year, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee had tried to push for legalizing same-sex marriage in the state. The civil unions bill was introduced after lawmakers who support gay marriage concluded that there weren't enough votes to pass a marriage measure.
Chafee believes the lack of support in the legislature is due to strong and persistent calls from the local religious community.
“The church has been very active in calling the legislature," he said, according to The New York Times.
Traditional marriage supporters contend that the issue of marriage should go to the people for a vote. According to the National Organization for Marriage Rhode Island, 80 percent of Rhode Islanders want the gay marriage issue to be decided by the people. Only 7 percent said they want a legislative vote.
The organization had launched radio ads in February, accusing the governor of wasting time by "messing with marriage" and not focusing on the real issues such as the economy.
The civil unions bill includes religious protections. It states that no religious organization or individual will be forced to solemnize a civil union or be subject to a fine or any other punishment for failing to do so. It also provides that no charities affiliated with a religious group will be required to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges for a purpose related to the solemnization, certification, or celebration of any civil union.
Despite the protections, traditional marriage advocates believe allowing civil unions for gays and lesbians is still a dangerous move.
Passage of the bill "opened the door for the courts of Rhode Island to redefine marriage without a vote of the people," Christopher Plante, executive director of NOM Rhode Island, told the NY Times.
Chafee is expected to sign the bill. If signed, the law would take effect on July 1 and Rhode Island will become the fifth state to permit civil unions for same-sex couples. The other four states are Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey.