The US state of Rhode Island on Thursday became the tenth state to allow equal marriage, as its Governor signed the bill into law, after it passed a second vote in the House by a very wide margin.

The Senate approved the bill last week by a comfortable margin and the House passed it in January. The bill returned to the House after the Senate made alterations to ensure religious-based organisations like the Knights of Columbus wouldn’t face lawsuits if they declined to host same-sex weddings.

On Thursday, the House voted 56-15 to approve the bill, and Governor Lincoln Chafee signed the bill into law on the Statehouse steps.

Under the new law, civil unions in the state will no longer be available from 1 July, but existing civil unions will continue to be recognised by the state.

The first same-sex weddings will take place on 1 August, when the new law comes into effect.

Rhode Island has a large Catholic population, and the legislation stipulates that religious institutions can choose whether or not to allow same-sex ceremonies to take place, and that no religious leader would be obligated to officiate any ceremony.

It goes on to state that no religious organisation would be obligated to provide facilities or services to a same-sex wedding.

“It’s a day we knew would come, but it seemed so far away for so many years,” said Representative Frank Ferri, an openly gay member of the House. “So many people worked so hard for this day.”

Delaware could become the next state to legalise equal marriage as the House in the state on 24 April passed a bill to do so. The measure will now go over to the Senate for consideration.

The Delaware legislation includes similar protections for religious institutions.