• David Bates (R-Barrington), the minority whip, seems partial to a popular referendum on the question. But he tells the Phoenix he would "consider" a same-sex marriage bill that offers substantial protections for religiously affiliated institutions that don't want to recognize gay nuptials. We'll rate him a toss-up.

• Dennis Algiere (R-Westerly), the minority leader, looks like a toss-up at the moment.

The Phoenix whip count, in toto, comes to 14 yeses, three lean yeses, 14 nos, four lean nos, and three toss-ups. Couldn't be much closer.

For same-sex marriage supporters looking to demonstrate a clear edge, that murky environment is a tough one. And legislators in the shadows may have reason to remain there until the end — to avoid alienating advocates on either side and to build leverage for horse trading.

Still, a majority is within sight.


THE END GAME

The most important component of the gay marriage end game may remain hidden from public view: if Paiva Weed and Fox come to some kind of accommodation, the bill should pass, if they don't, it probably won't.

But there are other elements to consider. First, the US Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments on a pair of gay marriage cases in late March and issue rulings in late June.

The decisions will probably come after the General Assembly closes up shop for the year. But the tone of the oral arguments could impact the Rhode Island debate. And opponents are already arguing that the Senate should wait to see what the high court rules before taking any action on same-sex nuptials.

If the measure does make it to the Senate floor, amendments seem likely. The House bill includes boiler plate language stating that no religious institution or religious leader is required to perform same-sex marriages. That leaves room for additional religious protections that could provide Paiva Weed and senators on the fence with some political cover, should they allow the bill through.

One model: the so-called Corvese amendment, attached to the civil unions law the legislature passed two years ago.

The amendment, named after the representative who authored it, exempts religiously affiliated institutions like Catholic hospitals from recognizing civil unions. Its expansive language — reaching beyond churches to the sort of institutions that serve the broader public — is anathema to gay rights activists. But if its inclusion in a same-sex marriage bill secures passage, those activists would probably accept it.

The Senate could also approve a referendum — putting the question to voters and providing an out, in the process, for Paiva Weed and senators reluctant to cast an up-or-down vote on gay nuptials.

Senator Frank Ciccone has proposed a referendum on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. That's going nowhere. But a referendum on same-sex marriage, itself, might have a shot at Senate passage.

Fox and Governor Lincoln Chafee, also a gay nuptials supporter, have rejected the idea, though — arguing that the legislature needs to do its job and that the majority shouldn't be able to vote on the rights of a minority.

Many in the gay and lesbian community have deep misgivings about a referendum, too. It would be painful, after all, to see neighbors planting "No on Question 1" signs in their lawns. And before the 2012 elections, advocates were 0-32 in same-sex marriage referenda fights around the country.

But public opinion is shifting rapidly. And after gay nuptials proponents won four ballot question campaigns last fall in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington — reversing the long losing streak — one could imagine Rhode Island advocates warming up to the idea in the coming years if the Senate remains an immovable object.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at  dscharfenberg@phx.com. Follow him on Twitter @d_scharfenberg.

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