Two gay marriage bills – one backing, the other prohibiting – in the Rhode Island Legislature are warming up to do head-to-head battle next week.

Both bills will be heard in the same state Senate Judiciary Committee starting on Thursday, February 26.

Rhode Island currently recognizes gay marriage in a roundabout way. Gay couples wishing to marry need only cross the border into neighboring Connecticut or Massachusetts. Those wedding vows are valid in the Ocean State, but getting a divorce in a state that does not officially offer gay marriage might prove contentious.

According to a recent poll commissioned by Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) there is strong public support for senate bill 147 introduced by Democratic Senators Rhoda Perry of Providence, Susan Sosnowski of New Shoreham, Juan Pichardo of Providence, Joshua Miller of Cranston, and Charles Levesque of Bristol. A majority of Rhode Islanders (49%) support marriage equality, while only 37% oppose it, the poll indicated. This is the fourth year in a row that a majority of likely voters have approved of gay marriage.

Rhode Island, the union's smallest state, is located in the six-state New England region where the gay marriage debate is at maximum amperage. Bills that would turn the entire region into a gay marriage sanctuary have been introduced this year in the four remaining states of New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and Rhode Island. New Hampshire and Vermont currently offer civil unions for gay couples.

None of that is stopping gay marriage foes in Rhode Island. Senator Leo Blais, a Republican from Coventry, is introducing legislation that would limit marriage to heterosexual couples by amending the state constitution and put an end to the loophole that allows gay and lesbian couples to marry in border states.

Blais' anti-gay stance is well known and he has introduced similar legislation in the past.

The National Organization for Marriage Rhode Island (NOM) began running radio ads supporting Blais' effort this week.

“These are the same legislators who don't have time to balance our budget, to restrain out-of-control spending, or come to some kind of agreement on immigration, but they have time to mess with gay marriage?” a female announcer asks.

“I want a mommy and a daddy,” a little boy pleads at the end of the spot.

The Rhode Island gay marriage debate has been going on for twelve long years. In 1997, former state Representative Michael Pisaturo, a Democrat from Cranston, introduced a gay marriage bill.

Providence's openly gay mayor David N. Cicilline says he still believes in gay marriage, but thinks it might be time to look at civil unions or domestic partnerships.

“I think we are coming to the point where we need to have a serious conversation as a community about [whether] we try to move forward incrementally,” Cicilline told The Providence Journal.

Democrats remain in control of both houses of the Legislature, but Rhode Island Republican Governor Donald Carcieri has said he opposes the legislation. This leaves gay marriage backers thinking of 2010, at which time the term-limited governor's 8-year term will be over.

Senate hearings for the gay marriage battle royale begin on Thursday at 5PM at the Rhode Island state capitol.