By Edith Honan
(Reuters) - Rhode Island lawmakers gave final approval to a bill to legalize gay marriage on Thursday, making it the 10th U.S. state to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples and the last of the six New England states to do so.
Governor Lincoln Chafee, an independent, signed the bill into law almost immediately after the vote on Thursday. The new law will take effect on August 1.
"We would not be where we are today without the Rhode Islanders who for decades have fought for tolerance and freedom over discrimination and division," Chafee said. "I am proud to say that now, at long last, you are free to marry the person you love."
The governor later joined the state's main gay rights organization, Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, at a victory party in the state capital Providence.
Last week, the Democratic-led state Senate approved the measure with the support of the entire Republican caucus. The state House had approved a similar bill in January and on Thursday approved the Senate's amended bill.
Despite the victory, some in the state continued to voice strong opposition.
In an open letter, Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence said he was "profoundly disappointed" by the vote and encouraged Catholics to "examine their consciences very carefully before deciding whether or not to endorse same-sex relationships or attend same-sex ceremonies."
The 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.
Before that point, advocates of same-sex marriage had never been successful at the ballot box, and voters in more than two dozen states had approved constitutional amendments defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Lawmakers in Illinois, Delaware and Minnesota have joined Rhode Island in taking up same-sex marriage legislation this year. In Delaware, the bill has passed the state's lower house and is scheduled for a vote in the upper house on May 7.
New Jersey Democrats, meanwhile, have until next January to attempt to override Governor Chris Christie's veto of a same-sex marriage bill in that state.
The other six states that have legalized same-sex marriage are Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa. The District of Columbia also has legalized same-sex marriage.
(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Daniel Trotta, Richard Chang and Paul Simao)