With five votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override a promised veto by Governor Jim Douglas the Vermont House passed a gay marriage bill late last night. Senators had already approved the measure by a veto-proof majority of 26-4.

The Democratic-led House vote of 95 to 52 came after about five hours of passionate debate on both sides.

Douglas, a Republican, promised last week that he would veto the legislation should it reach his desk and chided lawmakers for not focusing on the economy. He said civil unions, which Vermont was first to embrace in 2000, sufficed.

Hundreds of gay marriage supporters and opponents rallied outside the State House and filled the chamber's gallery to hear the debate.

“The promise of full equality of the marriage statutes that we held out in 2000 by creating civil unions, we believe, has not been fulfilled,” Rep. William Lippert, an openly gay Democrat, said on the floor.

Rep. Albert “Sonny” Audette, a Democrat from South Burlington, said his religious convictions would not permit him to approve of gay marriage but spoke of his respect for supporters.

“I am a devout Catholic,” Audette said. “My religion at this point would not want me to vote for this. I wish that I could and I hope for the best and I congratulate the people who are trying to get this through.”

Alarm bells sounded around 6PM when less than a two-thirds majority voted down a proposed amendment to hold a referendum on the issue after an hour's debate. The vote on the bill was nearly identical.

Gay marriage bills have also been introduced in Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine this year, shifting the gay marriage debate from California back to its New England roots.

If Vermont legalizes gay marriage, it will become the first state to do so legislatively.