PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation Thursday to allow gays and lesbians to marry in the only New England state where they cannot.
The House voted 51 to 19 after an often emotional debate that touched on civil rights, religion, and the nature of marriage. The bill now moves to the Senate, where both supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage say it is difficult to predict the bill’s fate.
‘‘This has been a long journey,’’ said House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is gay. ‘‘Today is a great day. Today . . . we stand for equality; we stand for justice.’’
Thursday’s vote posed the most significant challenge yet for gay marriage in Rhode Island. While the other New England states allow gay couples to marry, attempts have fallen flat in this heavily Catholic state. Nine states and the District of Columbia allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.
Gay marriage opponents vow to press their case in the Senate, where Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, Democrat of Newport, remains opposed.
Some foes have suggested placing gay marriage on the ballot as a referendum, but the idea is a nonstarter with Fox and Governor Lincoln Chafee, a gay marriage supporter.