Update at 6 p.m.: The Rhode Island state Senate has just approved the gay marriage bill with a 26-12 vote.
BOSTON — Rhode Island, the only New England state that hasn’t yet legalized same-sex marriage, is poised to join its neighbors.
The state Senate is expected to approve a gay nuptials bill late Wednesday afternoon, clearing the last major hurdle to passage.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent who supports same-sex marriage, could sign the bill into law as soon as next week.
“Rhode Island — founded as a welcoming and tolerant society — cannot afford to be an outlier in our region,” Chafee said Wednesday in a statement to WBUR. “We must join the rest of New England and New York. We must put the welcome mat out and be inviting to all those who want to live and work in Rhode Island and contribute to our state’s economy.”
Approval of same-sex marriage would, in some respects, be a predictable turn of events. Public opinion across the country is rapidly shifting toward acceptance of gay nuptials. And recent polls have shown strong support in Rhode Island. A Brown University poll from February found 60 percent in favor of same-sex nuptials and 26 percent opposed.
But even a few weeks ago, it wasn’t clear that same-sex marriage would become law in the Ocean State.
A push to legalize fell short in 2011 when openly gay House Speaker Gordon Fox pulled the bill — declaring that he didn’t have the votes — and ushered a civil unions measure into law.
The Catholic Church was a pivotal force in quashing the gay nuptials bill that year; Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin personally called several legislators, urging them to oppose the measure — no small gesture in what is, by some measures, the most Catholic state.
Gay marriage advocates, meanwhile, were mired in internal squabbles and ineffective at the State House.
But they were better organized by the time the 2012 elections rolled around. Supporters targeted several senators opposed to same-sex nuptials. And Tim Gill, a reclusive Colorado technology magnate active in gay rights causes, poured in some money of his own.
The effort met with mixed results, but it sent a strong message to legislators: Oppose the bill next time and we’ll come after you.
Speaker Fox, a Democrat, easily pushed gay marriage legislation through the House in January. And attention turned to the state Senate, where the bill’s fate was far from clear.
Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, a Democrat and a Catholic, is opposed to gay nuptials. The majority leader and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which had jurisdiction over the bill, are opposed too.
But the leading gay marriage advocacy group, Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, poured on the pressure. The organization lined up a host of mayors, religious figures and labor leaders. And, according to its own tally, it knocked on 25,000 doors, made 12,000 phone calls, and delivered 1,631 letters from constituents to their legislators.
That work and the broader sense of momentum around gay marriage — the continued shift in public opinion, President Obama’s support for gay nuptials, advocate victories at the polls in four states last fall — seem to have paid dividends.
Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the same-sex nuptials bill on a 7-4 vote and rejected a measure favored by gay marriage opponents that would have put the question to voters.
Scott Spears, a lawyer and advisory board member with the National Organization for Marriage’s Rhode Island affiliate, which opposes same-sex marriage, says approval could have far-reaching implications.
“An institution for the development of children will no longer be seen the same way,” he said. “Marriage will now have evolved, through legislative fiat, into a relationship that is defined, basically, by two people feeling good about each other and wanting to call it marriage. Watering down marriage to that degree will make marriage close to being a meaningless institution.”
But the views of gay marriage advocates — including gay and lesbian families who testified in a marathon Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in March — seem to have prevailed.
Insiders expect anywhere from 23 to 28 votes in favor of gay marriage in the 38-member chamber after the Senate convenes at 4 pm.
The Senate bill is a little different than the House version, offering stronger protections for religious organizations that may not want to recognize same-sex nuptials. The House, then, will have to take up the Senate version next week and approve it before it’s sent to the governor for his signature.
A spokesman for Speaker Fox says he expects the House to sign off on the final legislation next Thursday, with the governor signing it as soon as Friday.