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At least in Virginia, social issues are fast becoming fodder for a Democratic Party that has lost its way in recent years, Mr. Holsworth said.

“Essentially for Democrats, they’re seeing this as their road to independent women,” he said. “For a party that has been looking for a way to find a way to come back, Democrats are eager to keep these issues going for as long as they can.”

A Democratic victory

In Maryland, the passage of a gay-marriage bill comes after a bitter defeat last year for many in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.

After narrowly passing the sharply divided House last week with some vote wrangling by Democratic leaders, the bill had a much easier road in the Senate.

“It’s just a remarkable day for the people of the state of Maryland,” said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery Democrat who is openly gay. “And I’m just so proud that I’ve been a part of it.”

Supporters had lobbied since last year’s bill died in the House. They picked up a crucial ally when Mr. O'Malley announced he would sponsor this year’s bill, hoping to follow in the footsteps of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat who successfully shepherded a gay-marriage bill through his legislature.

This year, supporters based a larger part of their argument on assuring religious groups that the bill would not infringe on their beliefs.

The bill would allow gay couples to enter state-recognized marriages but would exempt religious institutions and groups from having to perform or recognize such unions.

Opponents submitted several amendments to the Senate bill — including changes to increase protections for religious groups and religion-minded residents — but all were rejected by the bill’s supporters.

House amendments approved last week push the bill’s effective date from October to January and prevent it from being enacted until any lawsuits over a potential referendum effort are resolved.

The amendments would also require the law to be voided if any part is declared unconstitutional — an attempt to win over lawmakers who feared that religious-conscience objections might be gutted by a court and churches then forced to perform gay marriages.

The Senate resisted further amendments, largely in an effort to keep the bill from returning to the contentious House, to the dismay of opponents.

“If we have opportunity to improve upon this bill, then we should do so,” said Sen. Christopher B. Shank, Washington Republican. “And I think it is our obligation to do so.”

The legislation passed with support from 24 of 35 Democrats and just one of 12 Republicans — Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, Howard Republican. It was opposed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who said he considers marriage between a man and woman.

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