By Daniel Lovering
(Reuters) - Rhode Island lawmakers introduced a measure on Thursday that would make the state the 10th in the nation and the last in New England to legalize same-sex marriage.
Sponsors of the proposal tried to move through similar legislation in 2011, but met with opposition and were forced to change the bill to allow civil unions only.
Representative Gordon Fox, an openly gay co-sponsor of the bill, said after being elected House speaker this week that he intended to bring the marriage issue to the House floor before the end of January.
"It is time," Fox, a Democrat, said in a statement. "We can no longer be the only New England state without marriage equality. Rhode Island must be next in enacting this basic civil right to marry the one you love."
Maine legalized same-sex marriage on Saturday, leaving Rhode Island as the last of New England's six states without legislation allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed.
Nine of the 50 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage. Maryland was the most recent, with gay marriage becoming legal there on January 1.
Another 31 states have passed constitutional amendments restricting marriage to heterosexual couples.
On Thursday, the sponsor of the Rhode Island proposal, Democratic Representative Arthur Handy, introduced the measure in a late afternoon session, said Fox's spokesman, Larry Berman.
"We've polled the members in the House and are very optimistic that it will pass comfortably," he said, adding that a public hearing would be held in the next few weeks.
It remains unclear how it will fare in the Senate, he said.
Teresa Paiva Weed, the state Senate president, opposes gay marriage, but has said she will allow a judiciary committee vote if the bill passed in the House, Senate spokesman Greg Pare said.
"I don't know what the vote would be in the Senate," he said. "It would be close."
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Ellen Wulfhorst and Leslie Adler)