Maryland's Senate passed a landmark measure Thursday evening that would allow same-sex couples to wed, pushing the controversial issue to the House of Delegates, which appears nearly evenly split on the issue.
The Senate voted 25-21 to approve the Civil Marriage Protection Act after two days of largely restrained and respectful discussion. Senators on both sides of the issue characterized the debate as "historic," and many said they had struggled with how to vote.
"I'm just thrilled," said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., the Senate's only openly gay member. "I'm so excited that we were able to get this done."
Discussion in the House of Delegates is set to begin Friday, with a committee hearing that could be far more rancorous than anything the Senate has seen.
Del. Don H. Dwyer Jr., a chief opponent of the legislation, promised this week to "take off the gloves" when he discusses gay marriage. The Anne Arundel Republican's bill to outlaw recognition of any union not between a man and a woman is also scheduled to be heard Friday.
"The Senate has been congenial. The House is going to be a lot more volatile," predicted Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a Baltimore Democrat and co-sponsor of the House version of the same-sex marriage legislation. "There are more personalities in the mix. I'm concerned about the tone."
Supporters said the Senate vote would bring comfort to thousands of gay and lesbian couples who believe that current law treats them as second-class citizens. Opponents warned that the bill would have unintended consequences, such as bringing a "homosexual worldview" into classrooms and diminishing the sanctity of marriage.
Opponents did not have the votes to mount a successful filibuster. At 6 p.m. Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat and the bill's lead sponsor in the Senate, called for a vote to limit debate to one hour, a motion that passed easily with 30 votes.
Final passage 30 minutes later brought applause from supportive senators.
The prospect of legalizing same-sex marriage has dominated the General Assembly session, with several lawmakers predicting that the vote would be remembered well after they retire. The measure gained momentum this year with the addition of two supporters to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, providing for the first time enough votes to bring the bill to the chamber floor.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has said he will sign the legislation if it reaches his desk, which would make Maryland the sixth state to legalize gay marriage. The District of Columbia allowed same-sex unions last year. At least two other states are taking up the issue.
But approval in the House of Delegates is far from assured. The bill in that chamber has 58 sponsors; 71 votes are needed for passage. And if it is passed, opponents would almost certainly petition for a referendum, giving Maryland voters the final say.
"In the larger equation, this is an idea whose time has come," said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who led the floor debate. "But the suspense continues."
Madaleno said thousands of Maryland couples are "wishing for this" bill to pass. The Montgomery County Democrat spoke on the floor about his partner, Mark Hodge, whom many of his fellow senators have come to know.
"We made a commitment to each other," Madaleno told his colleagues. "He in my heart is my spouse. … I wouldn't ask any of you to call your spouse your 'partner.'"
The bill would repeal a 38-year old provision in Maryland law that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The General Assembly crafted the definition in 1973 in reaction to "a growing movement to protect the rights of homosexuals," according to a Baltimore Sun article at the time.
The issue sparked far less controversy then. It was opposed by a single Republican senator, who viewed the provision as an "unnecessary restriction on an individual's freedom," according to a 1973 Sun article.
The Senate floor debate started in earnest Wednesday, when opponents offered a series of amendments that they said were needed to ensure that religious groups would not be forced to participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies.
Supporters of the bill accepted some of the amendments. Religious groups would not have to provide same-sex couples with benefits, such as insurance, that they offer only to members.
But when religious groups offer services to the wider public — such as adoption — they would have to include same-sex couples.
Opponents, many of whom said they would never support the underlying bill, said the amendments did not go far enough to protect those with religious objections to same-sex marriage.
Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican with a libertarian bent, said the state is moving unnecessarily quickly on same-sex marriage. He would have preferred that Maryland try civil unions first.
"This bill is complicated," Pipkin said. "This bill has major ramifications. … We are moving too far too fast."
An earlier effort to turn the legislation into a civil unions bill failed overwhelmingly in committee. Nobody offered the option as a floor amendment on Wednesday.
Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, said the "journals of history" will record Feb. 24, 2011, "as the day traditional marriage died in Maryland."
The Anne Arundel County Republican said his "gravest concern" is that legalizing same-sex marriage would cause a decline in traditional marriages "as it loses its sanctity to many."
A possible unintended consequence, he said, was that schoolchildren in Maryland would be taught "the homosexual worldview."
His comments prompted Sen. Karen S. Montgomery to recall the dire predictions about how children would be affected when public schools were integrated.
"We are repeating old arguments and have to move on," the Montgomery County Democrat said.
Senators said they had heard opinions from constituents on both sides of the issue. Several noted that their districts strongly oppose the measure.
But Sen. Ron N. Young, a freshman Democrat from conservative Frederick County, said he has not been swayed by the opposition.
"There are times when you have to do what is right," Young said. "We are here not just be representatives, we are here to be leaders. If I lose an election over this vote, so what?"
Advocates on both sides reacted quickly.
"We are deeply disappointed in the members of the Senate who have made the irresponsible decision to dismantle our state's definition of marriage," said Kathy Dempsey, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Catholic Conference.
The gay-rights group Equality Maryland filled the Senate galleries with dozens of supporters to witness the final vote Thursday.
"It's a moment for all of us," said Executive Director Morgan Meneses-Sheets.
The spotlight now shifts to the House of Delegates.
On Friday, the House Judiciary Committee will hear testimony from supporters and advocates. A majority of the committee members are co-sponsors of the legislation, which all but ensures that it will be forwarded for consideration by the entire 141-member body.
Its fate on the House floor is uncertain, though chief sponsors and gay-rights activists said they are optimistic.
"I think we'll get the votes we need to pass it," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, the lead sponsor. The Montgomery County Democrat said delegates plan to pass the Senate's version of the bill to avoid becoming mired in debate between the chambers.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, has been supportive of allowing same-sex couples to marry, though not outspokenly so.
The House traditionally has been the more liberal of the two chambers on social issues. But Republicans gained six seats in the November election.
Dwyer and Mitchell predicted that a vote on the House floor would be close.
"I think there will be supporters of the bill in the House who will have second thoughts," said Dwyer, who called himself the face of the opposition.
Already one of the legislation's original 59 co-sponsors has asked that his name be removed.
Del. Melvin L. Stukes said he thought the House bill, titled the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, would have given same-sex couples the right to join in civil unions. The Baltimore Democrat learned in recent weeks that it would grant full marriage benefits, which he said he has never supported.
"I don't want to deny anybody their human or civil rights," he said. "But to me, marriage is a moral issue. I could pull out the Scriptures on it. I'm very sorry that I got on the bill."
Several Democrats from conservative-leaning areas, including Dels. Norman H. Conway of the Eastern Shore and Michael H. Weir Jr. of Baltimore County, have said they will vote against the bill. And some black lawmakers with strong ties to their churches, including Dels. Cheryl D. Glenn of Baltimore and Emmett C. Burns Jr. of Baltimore County, are against it.
House Republicans voted weeks ago to oppose any legislation that would change the state's definition of marriage. But it is not clear that all Republicans would vote against the measure. Some Republicans said Thursday that they prefer to remain silent for now.
In the Senate, former Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman, whose district includes Howard and Carroll counties, gave up his leadership post after fellow Republicans expressed anger at his support for civil unions. He ultimately scrapped his civil unions bill and voted Thursday to support same-sex marriage. He was the only Senate Republican to cast a "yes" vote.
Del. Veronica L. Turner said she is torn about how to vote and needs to learn more about the legislation. The Prince George's County Democrat said she will try to excuse herself from the Health and Government Operations Committee on which she serves to listen to the debate Friday in the Judiciary Committee.
"I need to hear both sides for myself," she said. "I want to make sure I'm very educated about this before making my decision."
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
Senate votes 25-21 to approve gay marriage
House to begin hearing bill on Friday
Gov. Martin O'Malley says he would sign it