Five hours of testimony over two gay marriage bills in the Rhode Island Legislature – one backing, the other prohibiting – produced heated discussions last night.

Both bills were heard in the same state Senate Judiciary Committee in an unusual evening session that began at 5PM.

Senator Leo Blais, the Republican from Coventry who introduced legislation that would limit marriage to heterosexual couples by amending the state constitution, produced the most sparks when he read aloud a portion of written testimony submitted by Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, who likened gay marriage to several criminal offenses.

“Contrary to the assertion of others, this is not an issue about civil rights. Freedom is not unbridled license. ... In short, there's never a right to do something wrong. ... The fact that two adults consent to an action doesn't make it morally right or socially acceptable. After all, two consenting adults can engage in drug use, prostitution, bigamy, polygamy or other immoral activities,” the bishop wrote.

Tobin also sits on the board of advisers of the National Organization for Marriage Rhode Island that is currently running radio ads backing the bill to ban gay marriage.

“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.

Representative Arthur Handy, a Democrat from Cranston, introduced his gay marriage bill in the House on Wednesday with 30 co-sponsors.

In a telephone conversation, Kathy Kushnir, executive director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI), told On Top Magazine that support for gay marriage continues to grow, pointing to the tenfold increase from 2003 in Handy's House bill.

“I am always hopeful,” she said. “We're so close to getting marriage equality in Rhode Island.”

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. Blais' bill also aims to close this loophole.

According to a recent poll commissioned by 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 responders (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.

There was no committee vote at last night's hearing.  Legislative leaders in Rhode Island have the discretion to schedule a vote throughout the legislative session, which ends in June.

The gay marriage debate in Rhode Island has been going on for twelve long years. A bill to extend the benefits of marriage to gay and lesbian couples has been submitted each of those years.