- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Maryland Senate on Thursday evening approved a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in the state, sending the issue to the House of Delegates where a similar measure is scheduled for debate beginning Friday.

The Civil Marriage Protection Act cleared the Senate on a 25-21 vote after it was amended in recent days to provide additional protections to religious groups that oppose gay marriage to ensure they can’t be legally compelled to perform or take part in ceremonies or to recognize the unions.

The bill was passed one day after the Obama administration announced it had withdrawn its legal support for the federal Defense of Marriage Act — a significant victory for supporters of same-sex marriage. If passed by the House and signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley, the bill would include Maryland among the District of Columbia and five other states that have legalized gay marriage.

Supporters say they are confident the bill will pass the state’s Democrat-controlled House, and Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, has also indicated his support.

The outcome of the Senate vote seemed a foregone conclusion. A majority had publicly stated before Thursday’s debate that they would vote in favor of the bill.

Senators on Wednesday advanced the measure to a final reading, allowing for further discussion but closing the bill to any further amendments. That left lawmakers much of Thursday’s session to discuss their opinions on the issue and the personal experiences that shaped those opinions.

“Without full and equal civil marriage, Maryland makes sure that thousands of its families never forget that they are outsiders, that they are not quite equal,” said Sen. Richard Madaleno Jr., Montgomery Democrat, who is openly gay. “That is what this moment is about today. It’s about embracing all the families of our state.”

After nearly two hours of debate Thursday morning, lawmakers adjourned and reconvened at about 5:30 p.m. A final vote was called less than an hour later, after a motion limited debate to 30 additional minutes for each side.

The only change between the final tally and Wednesday’s preliminary vote was that of Sen. Joanne C. Benson, Prince George’s Democrat, who did not cast a final vote. Mrs. Benson said she was called away from the chamber on an emergency phone call shortly before the vote was taken but that she remained opposed to the bill.

Announcement that the measure had passed was greeted with spontaneous applause in the gallery, where many gay-marriage supporters had gathered to witness the debate.

The Senate’s Republican minority seemed resigned to defeat. Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs said afterward that she thinks there is significant opposition to gay marriage in Maryland and that the opposition likely will take the form of a referendum effort.

“I don’t think the majority of the people in the state were represented by the votes on the board today,” she said. “We want the people of Maryland to know that this is not finished for us and that it’s not finished for them.”

Debate did not fall strictly along party lines. Eleven of 35 Democrats opposed the bill — many citing their religious beliefs — while Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, Howard Republican, was the lone Republican of 12 to support the bill.

“I look at this bill, and I look at it as providing equal rights to our friends, to our families and to our colleagues,” Mr. Kittleman said during the floor debate, later adding, “It’s the right thing to do.”

Many of the bill’s supporters have likened it to past religion- and race-based civil rights legislation, arguing that it will extend basic rights to those long faced with discrimination. The bill’s critics, including Mrs. Jacobs, argued that it alters the ancient recognition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

“Marriage existed before there were hospitals, before there were tax breaks, before there were health benefits,” the Harford Republican said. “Marriage was not created to give two adults who love each other access to such benefits.”

Other Senate critics, including Sen. Christopher Swank, Washington Republican, argued the bill did not go far enough in protecting private citizens and business owners with religious objections. He said the law could put citizens at legal risk, citing a 2008 lawsuit filed by a lesbian couple in New Mexico against a wedding photographer who refused to photograph their wedding for religious reasons.

“We’ve failed to protect individuals and small businesses. There is no exception for religious dissenters in that regard,” Mr. Swank said. “They must recognize and participate in something that their faith tells them is not acceptable to do.”

The marriage bill now must pass the 24-member House Judiciary Committee before going to the full House of Delegates.

Delegate Don H. Dwyer Jr., Anne Arundel Republican and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said the committee will think carefully before deciding whether to advance the measure. He said he plans to make members aware of the arguments against gay marriage, and that a referendum could await if the bill does pass the House.

“There’s still a question in my mind as to whether all the committee votes are there,” Mr. Dwyer said, adding that he expects House discussion to wrap up in no more than a week or two. “This issue matters to a lot of people. It’s not just a religious issue, it’s not just a partisan issue.”

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