ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The Maryland General Assembly effectively killed a same-sex marriage bill Friday when House leaders, unsure whether they had enough support to pass a final vote, returned the legislation to the chamber’s Judiciary Committee.
The bill already had passed in the Senate, and approval in the full House along with Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley’s assured signature would have made Maryland the sixth state along with the District of Columbia to legalize such marriages.
The emotionally charged House debate Friday lasted for almost three hours before Delegate Joseph Vallario Jr., a Prince George’s Democrat and the Judiciary chairman, called for the bill to be returned to his committee, and delegates agreed on a voice vote.
Afterward, co-sponsors acknowledged the bill was returned to avoid outright defeat on the House floor and said the committee’s amending or resubmitting the legislation this year is unlikely.
“Oh, it’s dead,” said Delegate Curt Anderson, a Baltimore city Democrat and committee member who co-sponsored the bill. “When you resubmit a bill to the Judiciary Committee, you probably won’t see it anymore this year.”
The failed vote was a stunning turn of events, considering the Senate passed the legislation with little debate or opposition just two weeks ago. In fact, with predictions that the bill would have an easier time passing in the more liberal House, Republicans and other opponents began to turn their focus toward a 2012 referendum to overturn the bill.
Still, signs the legislation was in trouble began to appear when two co-sponsors skipped a scheduled March 1 final vote in the Judiciary Committee. And in the days following the final March 4 vote, legislators on both sides of the Democratic-controlled Assembly agreed that the bill was about two or three votes shy of the 71 needed.
Delegate Heather Mizeur, a Montgomery Democrat and one of seven openly gay delegates, acknowledged that supporters were uncertain about whether they had enough votes and that a floor defeat would have seriously damaged the bill’s chances in future years.
“It was incredibly, razor-thin close, but we couldn’t be assured,” said Ms. Mizeur, who gave an impassioned speech during the debate asking her colleagues to vote “in favor of love.”
“This will allow us to continue to work to firm those commitments up,” she said.
Though House Democrats appeared to have the political will to make same-sex marriage a legitimate Assembly issue and pass such legislation, many faced strong opposition from constituents or could not resolve how to honor personal religious beliefs that did not support such marriages.
Delegate Tiffany Alston, a Prince George’s Democrat and one of the co-sponsors who skipped the March 1 vote, was among the most torn.
Citing heavy opposition in her district, she proposed an amendment during the March 4 committee vote to legalize only civil unions for same-sex couples. When it failed, she voted against the legislation.
The bill passed 12-10 in the committee, but House leaders made sure no amendments were attached because they likely would have killed the legislation by sending it back to the Senate.
The House rejected several amendments this week, including another to legalize only civil unions, one requiring Marylanders to vote on the issue, and another offering broader, more general protections for religious groups that oppose gay marriage.
Both sides acknowledged Friday that they were at a stalemate but that the issue likely will be revisited next year.
“I’m just relieved that we don’t have to go through the petition (or referendum) process,” said Delegate Michael Hough, a Frederick Republican who opposed the bill. “But at the same time, the issue is going to come back.”