PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Senate is poised to hold a landmark vote Wednesday on gay marriage legislation, the culmination of years of efforts by supporters who want to see the state join the rest of New England in allowing gays and lesbians to wed.
Advocates are optimistic that the bill will pass when the Senate takes it up Wednesday. .The bill has been endorsed by the House and has the support of Governor Lincoln Chafee.
The vote comes after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7 to 4 Tuesday to forward the legislation to the Senate floor. Dozens of supporters cheered and cried following the vote.
Ken Fish, a 70-year-old gay man from Warwick, said he watched the committee vote with a mixture of disbelief and elation.
‘‘It’s almost unreal to think we’re here, after all these years,’’ he said. ‘‘I wasn’t sure we’d ever get here.’’
The bill states that religious institutions may set their own rules for who is eligible to marry within their faith and specifies that no religious leader is obligated to officiate at any marriage ceremony.
While ministers already cannot be forced to marry anyone, the exemption helped assuage concerns from some lawmakers that clergy could face lawsuits for abiding by their religious convictions.
Support for the bill has grown since it passed the House in January, due in part to an aggressive campaign by advocates. On Tuesday, the Senate’s five Republicans announced they would support the legislation, further improving the bill’s chances.
‘‘We’ve got one more step, but I expect it to pass with overwhelming support,’’ said Senator Dawson Hodgson, Republican of North Kingstown.
The committee also defeated legislation that would have placed gay marriage on the ballot as a voter referendum.
Supporters including Chafee and House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is gay, had opposed the idea of putting what they say is a civil rights issue to a public vote.
While the rest of New England already allows gay marriage, heavily Catholic Rhode Island emerged as a hold-out.