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Rhode Island set to be 10th state to pass same-sex marriage

(Reuters) - Rhode Island was set to become the 10th U.S. state to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples after the state Senate approved a gay marriage bill on Wednesday, in a major victory for gay rights activists.

The state House had approved a similar measure in January, but the bill will now go back to the House for a new vote because it was amended. Gordon Fox, the speaker of the House, said he will schedule that vote for May 2.

"Pending the final vote by the House of Representatives, Rhode Island will no longer be an outlier in our region," Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent, said in a statement.

"We will have the welcome mat out. We will be open for business, and we will once again affirm our legacy as a place that is tolerant and appreciative of diversity."

Rhode Island, which allows civil unions, is the last New England state without a law allowing gay nuptials, and Wednesday's vote marks the latest in a string of victories for gay marriage advocates.

Last November, voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington state approved same-sex marriage, while in Minnesota, voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a legal challenge to a 1996 law that restricts federal recognition of marriage to heterosexual couples.

"It's clear that if you make the case and talk about why marriage matters, Americans rise to fairness," said Evan Wolfson, the president of Freedom to Marry.

He noted that the vote also follows votes for gay marriage in France, Uruguay and New Zealand: "The momentum is clear and there are more states and more countries to come until all couples can share in the freedom to marry," Wolfson said.

Scott Spear, a Rhode Island lawyer affiliated with the National Organization for Marriage, the main national group opposing same-sex marriage, said extending marriage rights to gay couples would "dramatically change the landscape of life" in Rhode Island, and wished the state had brought the issue to the voters in a referendum.

"This is an issue that I believe has been very difficult for people to understand because it's much more that people are moved simply by emotion than understanding the policy implications," he said.

Lawmakers in Illinois, Delaware and Minnesota have also taken up same-sex marriage legislation this year. On Tuesday, the Delaware House approved the bill and it now moves onto the state Senate for consideration.

The other six states that have legalized same-sex marriage are: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa.

(Reporting by Edith Honan in New York; Editing by Scott Malone, Leslie Adler, Eric Beech and Lisa Shumaker)

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