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Maryland House panels OK gay marriage

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ANNAPOLIS — Two House panels on Tuesday passed Gov. Martin O'Malley's same-sex marriage bill, sending it to the chamber floor with help from the state's first Republican delegate to speak in favor of the legislation.

The House Judiciary Committee and Health and Government Operations Committee voted 25-18 in favor of the bill, which would make Maryland the eighth state to legalize gay marriage.

Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, has led the fight for gay marriage in the 2012 General Assembly after he was largely quiet on the issue last year, when a bill passed the Senate, but died on the House floor.

The two House committees voted jointly Tuesday, and 24 of 30 Democrats supported the legislation. Only one of 15 Republican did: Delegate Robert A. Costa, Anne Arundel Republican.

Delegate Sam Arora, Montgomery Democrat, abstained, and Delegate Patrick L. McDonough, Baltimore County Republican, was absent.

This year's bill will likely receive its toughest test in the House, where it has drawn resistance from many socially conservative Democrats. Floor debate could begin as soon as Wednesday.

"It's a close vote and an emotional issue," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery Democrat. "This is why we run for election and make the hard calls like this. It's going to be close, but I'm confident we'll pass it."

Supporters of the governor's bill are hoping to follow momentum created by recent victories in Washington and California.

Washington state Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, signed her state's gay-marriage law on Monday, just one week after a federal court struck down a California law banning gay weddings. However, both face further challenges from opponents before they can take effect.

Maryland lawmakers say success or failure in their state will almost certainly hinge on whether House Democratic leaders can gather enough supporters to pass the bill in the 141-member chamber.

Supporters estimated they were about three votes short last year when leaders chose to send the bill back to a House committee rather than see it defeated outright on the floor. No new Democratic supporters have come forward in the 11 months since the bill died.

"We need a couple more votes, and people always make their decisions against deadlines," Mr. O'Malley said at a pro-gay-marriage rally Monday night. "The bill has been heard in the House and is likely to move."

The state Senate could have a relatively easy time with its version of this year's bill, which is now being considered in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The 47-member Senate passed last year's bill by a 25-21 vote and is expected to vote along similar lines this year.

The committee's chairman, Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery Democrat, said his panel will probably vote on the bill by the end of the week, sending it to the Senate floor.

Mr. O'Malley and House leaders are hoping to find new gay-marriage supporters among Democrats who have opposed the bill or remained on the fence, including many black lawmakers from Prince George's County and Baltimore who say their constituents vehemently oppose gay marriage on religious grounds.

Supporters have argued that same-sex marriage would stabilize gay couples and give spouses access to many property, medical and custodial rights now afforded only to heterosexual couples.

The governor's bill would protect religious institutions and faith-based groups from having to perform or condone gay marriages, but opponents argue its passage would undermine traditional marriage, fail to protect private residents with religious objections and could eventually seep its way into religion or schools.

Opposing lawmakers proposed several amendments Tuesday that were shot down by majority Democrats, including one by Delegate Tiffany T. Alston, Prince George's Democrat, that would have postponed the bill's effective date from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1 to allow for a potential November referendum.

GOP legislators also unsuccessfully proposed changes that would give teachers and parents the right to opt out of potential school curriculums dealing with the gay lifestyle or sex education.

"If a parent wants to opt their child out of curriculum that violates their beliefs, they should be able to do that," said Delegate Don H. Dwyer Jr., Anne Arundel Republican.

The House panel voted on the governor's bill four days after it heard testimony from both sides during a 10-hour public hearing.

After the vote, Republicans charged that Democratic leaders are using underhanded tactics to push the bill through the House, including taking the unusual step of assigning it to two standing committees, rather than one.

Democratic leaders said this was done because the bill deals with two distinct areas of law — family law, which is usually handled by Judiciary, and civil rights issues, which are typically handled by Health and Government Operations.

However, opponents have argued that leaders were worried the bill would stall or fail in Judiciary — where it narrowly passed last year — so they brought it before a second, more receptive committee.

"That was highly unusual," said Delegate Neil C. Parrott, Washington Republican. "I don't think they have the votes, and I think it will be defeated on the House floor."

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